VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — The Village of Sherburne in Chenango County is looking to fund municipal broadband. Officials said the plan is expected to cost up to $3 million.
Sherburne is slated to receive $212,022 in Congressional funds for the broadband project. Rep. Claudia Tenney (NY-22) requested the funds as part of the Congressional Community Project Funding process, which allows members of Congress to request funds for, at most, 10 community projects in their district.
Tenney visited Sherburne alongside New York State Sen. Peter Oberacker (R-51) on Thursday to discuss the project. While there, she announced the bipartisan House Committee on Appropriations approved her request for Sherburne’s municipal broadband plan. President Biden has spoken favorably of municipal broadband projects, which the White House called “providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”
The appropriations request now must pass on the floor in both the U.S. House and Senate, and be signed by President Biden, before it is adopted into the 2022 fiscal budget.
The deadline to finalize Congressional appropriations is Oct. 1.
$212,022 would be a considerable contribution to the overall budget for Sherburne’s rural broadband plan, village officials said.
But in the event the federal funds do not pass, Mayor Bill Acee said it would be possible to self-fund the village’s project.
“It’s subject to a permissive referendum and we would have to propose it to the public, but I think it would stand on its own,” Acee told WSKG. “I think once the numbers are advertised, I think people would see that it stands on its own.”
According to a presentation on the project given by lead developer Travis Dubois, the village would take out a 15-year bond to cover initial capital expenditures for the project.
The village will install fiber broadband infrastructure. Dubois, who also serves as Supervisor for Sherburne Municipal Electric, said that is the most economical route for the village to take since it already owns utility poles in the area.
Sherburne and the Town of Greene are the only two municipalities in Chenango County that offer electric utilities to residents. With its own utility poles, Sherburne can hang its fiber network without needing to rent space on poles owned by a private company.
Dubois said the village is not looking for other outside funding sources, in part because they can come with strings attached.
“Sometimes those other funding sources come at a higher cost than they’re worth,” Dubois said. “I hate to say it, but that’s the reality of it.”
Dubois said the village is small and punching above its weight to bring broadband to residents. The idea of a broadband project has been discussed among village officials for nearly 20 years, Acee said, but it was the pandemic, as well as lower interest rates, that pushed leaders there to act now.
“With current interest rates as low as they are and the cost of money being as low as it is right now, to borrow money, it makes projects like this very viable,” Acee said.
Residents will pay back the bond, he added, through their monthly internet fee. The price of enrolling in Sherburne’s broadband program will go toward covering the project’s capital expenditures, operation and maintenance costs and fees from individual internet service providers.
Those expenses will contribute to the overall price to customers, which Dubois said the village is in the early stages of determining. Based on the fiber model chosen, he said he expects to charge residents between $50 and $75 per month.
“If we’re going to be $300 a month, it’s not going to work. If we’re going to be in the $50 to $75 a month with choices, great. Maybe we can play in this game here,” Dubois said. “Getting these costs nailed down is really the next step.”
Residents in Sherburne currently lack reliable access to even relatively low download speeds, making online classes and telehealth a challenge. Large swaths of Chenango County experience similar deficits in broadband. According to a 2020 survey from former NY-22 Rep. Anthony Brindisi, Chenango County had the second-worst broadband speeds in the state.
The federal benchmark for download speeds is 25 megabits per second (mbps), but residents speaking at a roundtable discussion on broadband in May said some households have trouble receiving just six mbps, while others said 25 mbps is not enough to participate in Zoom meetings or telehealth without technical difficulties.
Dubois said the planned broadband project will provide households with infrastructure for up to a gigabyte of download speeds and provide local IT support based in Sherburne.