County: National Grid gouged broadband fund

A crew from Slic Network Solutions installs fiber-optic lines for a new broadband network on Bloomingdale Avenue in the village of Saranac Lake in June 2017. (Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

MALONE — Franklin County legislators slammed National Grid Thursday, accusing the electric company of failing to maintain its infrastructure and then trying to siphon money from grants dedicated to expanding broadband access in the North Country.

The legislators unanimously passed a resolution condemning National Grid’s actions. The resolution will be transmitted to the governor’s office as well as all the town boards in Franklin County.

New York’s Broadband Now program has promised $160 million to various companies to expand high-speed internet to rural and remote locations, including in the Adirondacks and throughout the North Country. Those companies rent or buy space on electrical poles to carry their cables. The utility companies that own the poles add a make-ready cost to recoup the added expense for carrying broadband infrastructure.

Legislator Carl Sherwin (D-Malone) of District 5 said, “Right now the cost for make-ready at NYSEG [New York State Electric and Gas] is about $2,000 to $3,000 per mile. National Grid for make-ready is charging $25,000 to $26,000 per mile.”

NYSEG’s policy is to pay its own costs of bringing a pole up to standard itself. National Grid, however, appears to be using “funds set aside for broadband expansion” to bring its poles up to grade, according to the county resolution.

The resolution states: “National Grid has not fulfilled the promises they made to the Public Service Commission or its customers to adequately maintain its infrastructure in the form of rotten poles, transformers and insulators. … They have attempted to siphon monies from grants that are for the expansion of fiber optics to pay for their maintenance inadequacies.”

The legislators pointed to work Slic Network Solutions Inc., of Nicholville, has been doing in the town of Bellmont, extending fiber-optic access to rural households and businesses. Legislators said while they are pleased with the success of Slic’s efforts, National Grid’s charges put the whole project at risk.

Sherwin said if the make-ready costs are not brought in line, the broadband program will not be able to fulfill its purpose of extending high-speed internet to remote households.

“If the cost doesn’t come down, that is a true statement,” Kevin Lynch, chief operating officer of Slic, said by phone after the resolution passed.

“I want to make it clear that we work with National Grid on a regular basis,” said Lynch. “The local crews have been very good, and we work with them a lot, especially with the recent wind storm. We share a lot of the same infrastructure.”

In the town of Tyler, for instance, Lynch said Slic work crews have found that in one stretch of 20 poles, they had to replace 10, add another six and do more work on the other 10.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in the amount and type of work we’re being required to do,” said Lynch. “For instance, we’re being required to install new fuses on transformers, which we believe is beyond our responsibility. We do have a verbal agreement that some of that work will be pulled back, but we haven’t seen any action on it yet.”

The county board resolution says, “Some of these items, such as non-porcelain cut-outs [fuses] were identified in National Grid’s 2011 Asset Condition Report as part of the 2012 rate case and were scheduled for replacement by the end of 2013.”

According to legislators and Lynch, National Grid views the 50-year-old poles as grandfathered and therefore says it is not required to bring them up to code. Broadband infrastructure is a new use of the poles, which triggers a requirement to bring them up to code.

Legislators aren’t buying the grandfathering argument and want the state Public Service Commission to censure National Grid.

“Shifting these costs to the broadband program and the grant awardees is unacceptable,” states the resolution.

“The Franklin County Legislature hereby demands National Grid stop this practice of shifting costs and meets its obligation to maintain and upgrade its infrastructure in accordance with NESC standards.”

A National Grid spokesman did not immediately respond for comment.

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