$10 million may buy high speed internet countywide

May 13—There are around 157,000 households in Butler County and it is estimated about 45% are lacking adequate internet access so the Butler County commissioners are preparing to spend an estimated $10 million to rectify the situation.

When the commissioners held work sessions last summer on requests to share their $74.4 million allotment of federal American Rescue Plan Act money they heard from two groups about the dire need to get high speed internet access countywide.

Oxford Assistant City Manager Jessica Greene told them during the height of the pandemic when students in the Talawanda School District were forced into remote learning, the city spent $16,000 purchasing 380 hot spots so they could. She said the problem is much more pervasive.

"I believe this is a huge issue of economic and equity access to education, employment, public health and job growth...," Greene said. "Before COVID it was an annoyance, after COVID it was crucial."

County Administrator Judi Boyko has been working on a request for proposals and qualifications for a countywide program. The three commissioners have indicated they support investing $10 million in the effort.

"The commissioners desire to identify a qualified partner for multiple purposes," Boyko said. "Namely to assess the status of high-speed fiber optic broadband availability in Butler County. To develop a plan to construct and expand the high-speed fiber network to the premises and to construct and operate that expanded fiber to the premises network."

Former county administrator and Butler Rural Electric Cooperative engineering manager Charlie Young gave the commissioners a $3.9 million proposal to bring high-speed broadband to about 2,700 Butler County rural locations, in partnership with Cincinnati Bell.

Young told the Journal-News he has endeavored to discern how much of the county lacks adequate internet service using the Broadband Ohio website and it isn't easy. His best guess is only about 55% of people have true, reliable, high-speed access.

"It's hard to find reliable, accurate information on really who has what, it's hard to find it at the census tract level and even harder to find it at the address level," Young said. "What we're really kind of left with is guessing, and part of the problem is companies have claimed to provide a level of service they frankly don't, or that level of service may be available at 2 a.m. when only one person is online and as soon as there's two it's not there anymore."

Young said BREC actually doesn't need the commissioners help anymore because AltaFiber recently informed them they will be extending fiber connections to all the remaining unserved members throughout their service area.

The ARPA regulations mandate upload/download speeds, populations served and other requirements but Boyko said the county can also tailor it to local needs. The commissioners have voiced concern that just bringing the service to people isn't enough.

"We're not going to put something in the ground or on the poles that doesn't work," Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News. "We're certainly going to put something out there that's not affordable, that's just the same as not having it."

Boyko said there are several areas peppered throughout the RFP that ask potential providers to address affordable internet service. Just this week President Joe Biden announced 20 internet companies have agreed to provide discounted service to people with low incomes through the existing Affordable Connectivity Program.

The participating providers are Allo Communications, AltaFiber (and Hawaiian Telecom), Altice USA (Optimum and Suddenlink), Astound, AT&T, Breezeline, Comcast, Comporium, Frontier, IdeaTek, Cox Communications, Jackson Energy Authority, MediaCom, MLGC, Spectrum (Charter Communications), Starry, Verizon (Fios only), Vermont Telephone Co., Vexus Fiber and Wow! Internet, Cable, and TV.

Boyko said the proposed RFP will also give the commissioners flexibility in "scaling" the program.

"Right now it appears the commissioners are unanimous on about a $10 million project, we would have to design this RFP so there are components of the buildout that would be priced so you could see by what area how much is would cost," Boyko said. "So you could see what you can encompass with a $10 million budget. The board obviously could expand and allocate additional funding, should the proposals come back that you're only meeting 75% of the need or 85% of the need."

Commissioner T. C. Rogers said he wants the RFP to be very clear what this project is and is not about.

"It's for work and school, we have no desire to do this so that you can get your Amazon order quicker," Rogers said. "We're going to do it and provide much needed services, but those are the pure reasons why we're doing this."

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said "I just want it to be clear if someone is going to get $10 million that they're going to make sure that every student in Butler County can access the internet."

Boyko is recommending the county convene an evaluation committee to vet the proposals, which could include Greene, Young, Miami University, the County's IT Director Eric Fletcher and others.

The commissioners must still approve advertising the RFP.