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Axcess bridging the digital divide

Without broadband access to the Internet, George Ayers would find his job much more difficult.
“We’re dependent on world markets for everything we do,” said Ayers, a Farmington-based family farmer. “In my case, I watch corn, soybean and wheat prices nearly every day.”
In addition to checking up on the markets, he also uses modern telecommunications to do everything from researching the latest agricultural trends and techniques via Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Web site to marketing his wares via a Twitter-enabled pick-your-own berry side business.
Technology “is going to open up way more opportunities than anyone in agriculture realizes,” he said.
It’s for that reason Ayers said he supports an ongoing project to build a 180-mile fiberoptic ring in Ontario County. Commissioned by that county’s government and overseen by Axcess Ontario — a non-profit corporation formerly known as the Finger Lakes Regional Telecommunications Development Corp. — the initiative aims to boost economic development opportunities as well as enrich the quality of life to the
largely rural citizens of Ontario County. Organizers say the ring will increase competition among existing Internet providers; provide telecommunications access to currently not served or underserved areas and link businesses, governmental agencies, schools and colleges and other institutions. To date, about 60 miles of the $7.5 million fiber ring project are complete, with the rest scheduled for completion through the rest of this year.
Ontario County is only one of a growing number of municipal governments seeking for ways to bridge the digital divide. Late last month the federal government announced the release of $39.7 million in economic stimulus funds for a 1,300-mile fiberoptic network serving 70 rural communities in upstate New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania.
Axcess Ontario CEO Ed Hemminger, who also is Ontario County’s chief informational officer, said “telecommunications is important to economic development today. It’s probably as, or in some cases more [so] than water or sewer service.”
Broadband and other telecommunications access is crucial for smaller communities for myriad reasons, not least of which is that even small businesses now find themselves competing in national and international marketplaces. Rural communities that find themselves left in the cold in the post-digital world find also that they can’t compete. Many private Internet service providers often find it too cost prohibitive to build the types of telecommunications infrastructure needed to increase broadband Internet access and similar services in areas with low population densities. The result is a monopoly or, at best, a duopoly of providers, if service is available at all, Hemminger said.
Farmers are a prime example of how potential customers are being shut out, Ayers asserts. While he is fortunate enough to be based within the coverage area of Time Warner’s Roadrunner service, “most of the farms [in Ontario County] are not located near main highways, where the cable is.”
There are alternatives, he concedes, but they are not ideal.
“A satellite dish is fine, except that it isn’t as fast, it goes down whenever there is bad weather and it is expensive,” he said.
Often lumped under the generic term “municipal broadband,” government-funded or sponsored Internet projects have taken a variety of forms and have boasted varying levels of success.
A public/private partnership between Philadelphia and the ISP EarthLink to create city-wide wifi hotspots has faltered due to lack of revenue and higher than expected costs on the part of EarthLink, the party contractually responsible for building the infrastructure to support it. Philadelphia has since switched to a wholly-city owned model, however, and additional city-owned municipal networks are springing up in places like Chaska, Minn. and Bristol, Va.
The Axcess Ontario project is different from past local efforts in that it is building the backbone for fiberoptic network itself but will lease direct access to consumers — known in the industry as the “last mile” — to third-party providers, Hemminger said. Those third parties ultimately will determine the types and prices of services consumers will be able to receive.
Currently, Axcess Ontario leases access to TW Telecom, Finger Lakes Technology Group and Verizon Wireless as well as to institutional users such as the Marcus Whitman School District, Finger Lakes Community College and Thompson Health. “Government tends to do very well at infrastructure because we can have a 25-year return on investment,” Hemminger said. “The private sector is good at providing services because that is what they do every day.”
Eric Walters is a Rochester-based freelance writer.