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Slic faces problems, moves forward

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NICHOLVILLE — Fueled by $33 million in federal funding, Slic Network Solutions, a subsidiary of Nicholville Telephone Co., has tackled the task of expanding broadband Internet access to rural and underserved areas of St. Lawrence County.

But no project of that scale goes entirely as planned.

Working out of an old building and a defunct diner, the small but growing company has worked tirelessly toward its goal of installing 660 miles of fiber in three years.

Taped to a wall in Slic CEO Mark J. Dzwonczyk’s office is a storyboard of sorts. It houses a 12-foot-long mass of notebook paper that explains how the company will use $33 million to double the number of the company’s permanent employees and bring the county into the digital age.

Mr. Dzwonczyk said the plan is a work in progress.

Of course, plans often change. Mr. Dzwonczyk said several hiccups have hindered the process.

“We aren’t as far along in some aspects as we would like to be,” he said. “We haven’t lived up to some of our promises in bringing television service to some areas within the time frame we set, and we aren’t happy about that.”

Among the biggest problems with the rapid expansion is cash flow. On paper, a $33 million grant sounds like a gold mine, and it would be if the company had the money in hand, but the grant works on a reimbursement basis. Each time a certain portion of the project is completed, Slic gets a check.

“It basically works out to a monthly basis, but sometimes that just isn’t enough,” he said.

Mr. Dzwonczyk said the company recently experienced delays owing to a shortage of materials. To compensate for the lost time, the company had to spend more money than it had on hand. Mr. Dzwonczyk said the project wasn’t in danger of failing, but it was straying from the plan.

“The company was taking on more risk than I was comfortable with,” he said.

To address the cash flow problem, Slic has received help from the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency in the form of a credit line. Further assistance was provided recently by the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency, which lent the company $825,000.

“Both agencies have been incredibly helpful. I think they recognize the significance of the project, and they want to see us succeed,” Mr. Dzwonczyk said.

While the project includes providing cable television, Internet and telephone service to end users, Nicholville Telephone President Phillip J. Wagschal and Mr. Dzwonczyk said it is also important to the county’s future.

“You can’t easily have economic development in this day and age without broadband,” Mr. Dzwonczyk said. “It’s something companies need to be competitive.”

Patrick J. Kelly, the IDA’s deputy CEO, said the IDA and River Agency both recognize this statement as a fact. Mr. Kelly said the fiber could be a boon for businesses that previously would not have considered locating in the county.

“We have a local company providing the service. So right away anytime you can support a St. Lawrence County-based firm in this kind of massive infrastructure project, it is very important from the IDA’s standpoint,” he said. “It is also a project that is important for future economic development. Increasingly, broadband isn’t a positive item you can add to a list to attract businesses. It’s a competitive necessity. This is a large county with great areas that are underserved. This project they are undertaking is bringing us up to a competitive level.”

Mr. Dzwonczyk said the loan and credit line have been vital in bringing the project back on track. He said the company plans to provide service to town of Oswegatchie and Lisbon residents near Flackville by January.

“The help we have received allows us to move forward at a good pace. I wish we could say the problems are behind us, but there are always going to be problems,” he said.

Mr. Dzwonczyk said regardless of what comes, the company will succeed in its project.

“It’s something we need. It’s really an enabler in so many ways. From work-from-home businesses to kids doing homework, it’s getting to the point where this is must-have service,” he said.

In the past few months, Slic has grown from 27 employees to 40 employees. Mr. Dzwonczyk said at the end of the project the company hopes to have 60 full-time employees.

Along with the work in St. Lawrence County, Slic is installing 160 miles of fiber in Franklin County.

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