4:09pm

Mon April 4, 2011
Rural broadband

Corning Inc. invests $10 million in Southern Tier broadband project

Google made headlines last week when it picked Kansas City, Kan. for its experimental “Fiber for Communities” project.

But the Internet giant isn’t the only Fortune 500 Company investing in optical fiber as a means of delivering super-fast broadband these days.

Earlier this year - with much less fanfare - Corning Incorporated announced that it was spending $10 million to help three Southern Tier counties build a $12 million fiber ring.

So far, insiders and industry watchers alike say the unique public-private partnership looks like a win-win.

“We saw this as an investment not only in the community’s future, but in Corning Incorporated’s future,” says Corning's Dan Collins.

When the 235-mile-long fiber ring is completed in 2013, officials say it will solve a problem that’s long plagued the predominantly rural area: access to broadband is spotty at best.

The need for broadband

Marcia Weber, executive director of the Southern Tier Central Regional Planning and Development Board, knows the need for broadband better than most.

“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,” says Weber.

Weber’s organization led the hunt for improved broadband access for the better part of a decade, seeking funding for a backbone of fiber optic cable that would link the area to markets the world over.

Experts says the benefits of such fiber rings are many. Businesses can use them to tap-in to the global economy, public safety organizations can use them for improved communications, hospitals can use them to transfer bandwidth-intensive medical files, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

But in a cash-strapped region, the project couldn’t get off the ground without outside money.

So Weber’s planning board drew up a plan, applied for federal stimulus funding and even put in for the experimental Google project.

All to no avail.

“By the time we finished we had a really great project that was ready to go as soon as we got the funding,” says Weber. “Only we didn’t get the funding.”

So in steps Corning

For a company that employs about a fifth of all the people who live in a ten-mile radius of the town that it’s named after, the decision for Corning Inc. to pony up some capital made a lot of sense. (By way of introduction, here’s a video of all the semi-futuristic things the company wants to do with glass.) 

“The area needs increased broadband services in order to be competitive in today’s global environment,” says Corning Inc.’s Collins. “Corning Incorporated needs those as well.”

Broadband industry analyst Craig Settles agrees.

“They just basically made it so that everybody in their local sphere wins,” says Settles. “It’s $10 million well spent for them.”

Why bother?

As Settles put it in a recent blog post, investing in fiber networks is about much more than spending resources “so kids can download YouTube and surf porn sites.”

He says Corning Inc.’s partnership with Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties deftly leaps the major hurdle that all rural broadband networks face: the high upfront costs of installing optical fiber makes it hard for the Time Warners and Verizons of the world to make their money back in sparsely populated areas.

But by removing that obstacle, those same service providers can use the region’s broadband infrastructure to pump their Internet through the community’s pipes.

“Basically it creates the competitive environment that allows consumers to have some protection from being screwed over,” Settles says. “That’s why open access networks are kind of the holy grail.”

Model to the north

The forthcoming Southern Tier Network (STN) is following the same game plan of a nationally-recognized fiber ring immediately to its north.

The fiber ring in Ontario County - known as Axcess Ontario - didn’t benefit from the huge chunk of private support, but once STN is up and running, the two networks will operate the same way.

Companies and institutions pay a flat rate to tie-in to the fiber ring, and the non-profit that’s set up to manage the network uses those fees for maintenance and upkeep.

Once they’re built, each network of broadband pipes costs nothing to local taxpayers.

Joe Starks runs the broadband consulting firm that worked on both fiber rings. He says the one in Ontario County is already having success at drawing high-tech firms into the area.

“That’s our goal,” says Starks. “To use this network to bring jobs and technology back into the region. That’s the end game. That’s what we have to do.”

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.