MOROCCO — How much would it cost to bring and install high-speed broadband internet throughout every part of Newton County?
That question was answered at a special Newton County Council meeting Jan. 29 when Yates Engineering President Bart Bretsch gave a presentation of an FTTH (Fiber to the home) Study of the entire county.
Newton County Economic Development Director Tim Myers opened up the meeting by saying that affordable high-speed broadband was one of the priorities his office was tasked with, a county broadband committee was formed, and Yates Engineering (who he called a fiber network expert) was hired to get information for the county’s decision-makers.
Bretsch said he was first hired to look at the most underserved areas of the county in terms of broadband, which turns out to be Lake and McClellan Townships and the north part of Beaver Township.
The “fiber to the home study” that was presented showed the very top end cost of what the project could be which included fiber to every home, business (open or empty), and vacant lots in the 2.5 township area.
The total cost, including engineering and construction, to bring broadband to every possible lot in Lake, McClellan, and the north part of Beaver Township was $8,279,406.
“We completed that study in August 2019,” said Bretsch. “We were then asked to find the total possible cost for the entire county.”
Bretsch again said that the numbers are the highest possible cost and include fiber to the home for every residence, business (open or empty), and vacant lot in the entire county.
The total cost to do broadband, with a potential download and upload speed of 1 gigabit per second for the entire county was $30,959,573 (7,098 locations). That includes using a mix of aerial lines (on telephone poles) and buried fiber lines throughout the county, engineering costs, and total construction costs.
“This project would be a game-changer for this county, and for economic development,” said Bretsch. “Studies show a project like this can increase property value by 3.1 percent.”
According to the three funds that contain landfill money, Newton County currently has around $26 million. In 2019 alone the county received just under $6 million in landfill fees, and spent around $3 million for its operating budget.
Bretsch also pointed out that the project could be done at a much lower cost if the vacant lots weren’t included, and the county could save around $4 million by partnering up with Netnitco and using their fiber lines that are already in place.
“Again this study shows the extreme highest cost if the county wanted every piece of property in the county hooked up to fiber,” added Bretsch.
If approved the total project would take 841 working days to complete (around 4 years).
There was some discussion if grant funds would be available to help with the cost, and Bretsch recommended having an Internet ServiceProvider write a Letter of Intent for an OCRA grant for rural broadband development.
So far the following providers have been awarded funding from OCRA for rural broadband:
• Benton Ridge Telephone Company — $14,883,684.70 for 11,537 locations
• Mercury Wireless — $1,400,844.80 for 7,371 locations
• Orange County REMC — $10,200,496.30 for 4,046 locations
• Perry-Spencer Rural Telephone — $1,182,425.70 for 359 locations
• RTC Communications Corp. — $1,326,394 for 1,203 locations
• Wisper ISP, Inc. — $123,648 for 14 locations.
“With this grant program, the funds will have to come out of pocket first, and then will be reimbursed,” added Bretsch. “I don’t know if this project would be approved for grant money since under their terms not all of the county is underserved, but it wouldn’t hurt to try.”
OCRA is currently viewing underserved areas in the state as locations that can’t get internet download speeds of 10 megabits/second and upload speeds of 1 megabit/second.
“I think OCRA will eventually raise those standards so that more areas can be helped with this grant money,” added Bretsch.
So does Newton County wait for the grant funds, or do they begin the project on its own? That was a question tossed around at the special meeting.
“So should we do a pilot program for two to three townships first and then see if we can get grant funds,” asked Michael Mark, Newton County Councilmember, and county broadband committee member. “If we show our own initiative, I would think our chances for grant approval would increase down the road. In my opinion, this is one of the of ‘best ways’ that county government can benefit the entire county with the use of landfill money. It has the potential to positively affect every business, home and farm in Newton County through affordable and reliable high-speed internet, phone and TV services.”
Nothing was decided at the special council meeting as it’s sole purpose was to get hard numbers on what it would cost to install fiber throughout the entire county.
However, Bretsch did suggest keeping the momentum going if they want to do any kind of broadband project.
“Continue to gather feedback and input from Newton County citizens,” said Bretsch. “Recruit local shareholders from each township. Conduct county-wide education on the goals and benefits of high-speed fiber internet. Focus on unserved areas first. Continue to monitor state and federal grant programs.”