State of Disrepair: Public-Private Solutions

Rochester, NY – Some New York State leaders say it's time to consider more public-private partnerships as a way of addressing the state's infrastructure needs. As part of our series, State of Disrepair, WXXI's Innovation Trail reporter Zack Seward examines one such partnership that's just getting off the ground in the Southern Tier. It's one of many rural communities around the nation trying to build the broadband infrastructure that internet service providers have not.

The Southern Tier town of Corning is one of the more urbane outposts of upstate Appalachia. It's in a region, however, that suffers from some of the same problems more closely associated with rural parts of Pennsylvania or West Virginia.

One such problem is access to high-speed internet.

Marcia Weber is head of the area's regional planning board.

"People were very frustrated that they lived out in the hills and they couldn't get anything other than dial-up, which is still the case in many of our areas," Weber said.

Weber's organization has been on the hunt for improved broadband access for the better part of a decade.

Her planning board heads up the efforts of a group of three counties that's set on building a backbone of fiber-optic cable that businesses could use to tap-in to the global economy.

Beyond that, Weber says the fiber ring would connect public safety towers, link area colleges and bring things like 4G wireless into the region.

But despite the benefits, they had to find the money to get it built.

Weber's group reviewed the finances, applied for federal stimulus money and even put-in for an experimental project from Google.

"By the time we finished we had a really great project that was ready to go as soon as we got the funding," said Weber. "Only we didn't get the funding."

In a cash-strapped region, no money meant no project. So Weber approached the one local company that could help.

Dan Collins is the chief spokesman for Corning Incorporated.

"We saw this as an investment not only in the community's future but in Corning Incorporated's future," said Collins.

The local manufacturer of high tech glass products came through big time, picking up $10 million of the project's $12 million tab.

Collins says backing something that helps Corning-the-company and Corning-the-town was a no brainer -- especially since the company employs about a fifth of its surrounding community.

"The area needs increased broadband services in order to be competitive in today's global environment," Collins said. "Corning Incorporated needs those as well."

Broadband industry analyst Craig Settles also sees it as a win-win.

"They just basically make it so that everybody in their local sphere wins. It's $10 million well spent for them."

Settles says Corning's involvement in the 235-mile-long fiber ring is one of the more unique public-private partnerships in the country.

But just like other so-called PPPs, Settles says the partnership in the Southern Tier leaps the same major hurdle that all rural broadband networks face -- the high upfront costs make it hard for the Time Warners and Verizons of the world to make their money back.

Once the network's up and running, however, Settles says those same companies are meant to play a key role: the fiber ring is set up so that any provider can pump its internet through the community's broadband pipes.

"Basically it creates the competitive environment that allows consumers to have some protection from being screwed over."

It's the same game plan of a nationally-recognized fiber ring immediately to its north.

Joe Starks is the president of the broadband consulting firm that's worked on both the forthcoming Southern Tier Network and the recently finished fiber ring in nearby Ontario County.

Unlike the Southern Tier project with its huge chunk of private support, the money from Ontario County's fiber backbone was channeled through public agencies.

But in the end they'll both work the same way.

Once they're up and running, the networks of empty pipes costs nothing to local taxpayers. Maintenance and upkeep are covered by the rent that companies and institutions pay to tie-in.

Ontario County officials say their fiber ring is starting to pay dividends, and Starks says the county is seeing early success at attracting high tech firms.

"That's our goal," said Starks. "It's to use this network to bring jobs and bring technology back into the region. That's the end game, that's what we have to do."

Officials say construction in the Southern Tier begins in June.

Starks says the fiber optic backbone will have a greater economic impact on the region than the interstate highway that runs through it.