In 2003, the Ontario County Office of Economic Development (OED), led by Michael Manikowski, began developing a multi-year technology-led economic development plan. As part of the process, OED leaders began to recognize the many challenges that businesses and residents faced in terms of telecommunications and broadband infrastructure.
First and foremost was the immediate recognition that telecommunications and broadband were critical to economic development and global competitiveness, especially if a largely rural county like Ontario County wanted to continue to grow and prosper in the 21st century. Second, officials fully realized the adverse impact of the county’s five separate phone companies, two area codes and inconsistent investment in telecom infrastructure in prior years. Third, and most urgent, a major employer threatened to leave in part because of this inconsistent infrastructure.
These challenges led to the creation of the county’s 200-plus-mile, open-access fiber ring project In October 2005. The project began with a basic philosophy:
- Fiber open to everyone - digital inclusion was paramount
- Fiber to touch all municipalities, large and small - another nod to digital inclusion
- Backbone, dark fiber only - no services that would compete against private sector
- Nonprofit corporation to manage private-sector contracts
- $1.5 million in seed money from county for the $7.5 million project, but no additional taxpayer support - paving the way for responsible fiscal management of the project. The remaining costs are funded through an economic development project that Ontario County IDA, a fiber ring partner agency, negotiated with Empire Pipeline as it sought approval for a natural gas pipeline
- Economic development infrastructure for the 21st century
Today, the effectiveness of the fiber ring is clear. Axcess Ontario, the nonprofit corporation created to oversee the development and management of the fiber ring, and led by CEO Ed Hemminger, has signed master agreements with eight service providers, including national broadband provider tw telecom and Tier 1 telecom provider Verizon Wireless. Talks with other service providers are ongoing.
In addition, as of early 2011, the fiber ring has already attracted five companies with 83 employees and growing. All five are small, entrepreneurial technology firms—exactly the kind of companies the fiber ring seeks to attract. In addition, more than 50 other companies have inquired about fiber hook-up, demonstrating the demand that businesses have for high-speed service. Among them is Iberdrola USA, the parent company of Rochester Gas & Electric and New York State Electric & Gas, which is using the fiber to better manage communications among its 10 RG&E substations in Ontario County, link them to the utility’s main control center and resolve service issues.
Others, including F.F. Thompson Hospital and Finger Lakes Community College, have signed on to the fiber ring to enhance their own internal IT infrastructures. In Thompson Hospital’s case, patients at the hospital’s new satellite Urgent Care Center can have X-rays taken at the center, have them called up and reviewed by radiologists at the hospital nearly 10 miles away, and have a diagnosis within minutes, instead of hours or even days. They are no longer dependent on a courier to pick up their images and drive them back and forth.
These kinds of success stories underscore the fact that Ontario County officials recognized early on that telecom/broadband infrastructure would be as critical to economic growth in the 21st century as electricity was in the 19th century, or highways were in the 20th century. Thanks to this foresight, our community is now poised to compete in the global marketplace for decades to come.