Commissioners, SOCS representatives talk broadband expansion
Pictured (l-r) are Highland County commissioners David Daniels, Brad Roades and Terry Britton. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County commissioners Terry Britton, David Daniels and Brad Roades met with Steve Williams and Gary Cooper of Southern Ohio Communications Services, who provided an update on the company’s broadband installation in the area during the Wednesday, Sept. 20 commission meeting.
As previously reported, in March 2022, Governor Mike DeWine and Lt. Governor Jon Husted announced new broadband expansion projects through the Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant Program (ORBEG) that will make affordable, high-speed internet available to nearly 100,000 households in Ohio that currently don't have access to reliable internet connectivity. The grants awarded included $22,423,850.88 awarded to Southern Ohio Communications Services (SOCS) for 3,291 households in Adams, Highland, Pike and Scioto counties.
Cooper met with commissioners in March 2022 and said that for Highland County specifically, that award covered 1,007 households in a 109-mile area, “approximately 31 percent of the granted area.”
As of Wednesday, Williams said that “we're currently in the middle of a 511-mile project” in southern Ohio, while SOCS also “just completed a 91-mile project” in Pike and Scioto counties.
“We're currently building out through Adams County on our way to Highland County,” he said, with Cooper adding, “What’s holding us up now is just access to poles.”
Last year, Cooper shared a map of the area’s “passings” — or homes or businesses — not covered in the grant. He said there are 1,343 passings overall in the area, meaning 336 are not covered by the ORBEG monies. Those passings were won by SOCS in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) reverse auction, Cooper said.
Williams said that SOCS has “engineered 165 miles” for Highland County, to accommodate both the RDOF and the ORBEG passings. Those 336 homes are still not covered financially, he said, and the cost per passing Williams quoted Wednesday is slightly higher than what Cooper anticipated last year.
“In Highland County, the project cost per passing is running $7,800 a passing,” Williams said. “That includes the buildout and make-ready costs, which is a high percentage of the cost. That's also what takes the most time in the buildout. We could go out and build 100 miles of fiber in a few months if it was just the construction crews going out the building.
“The power companies are taking — we’re seeing sometimes a year and a half — from the time we submit. We have to have a permit for every poll, essentially is how it works, and we'll submit that information to the power companies, and they tell us what it’s going to take.”
Williams added that negotiations with power companies are taking “anywhere from 10 to 18, sometimes 20, months per pole.”
“We've created these plans five years ago to build out, you know, to Highland County, and you're talking still another two or three years before any fiber actually gets put on the line because we're still waiting on AEP and South Central,” he said.
SOCS is contributing $3.2 million into Highland County for the non-ORBEG homes, and they have $1,805,881.68 left to fund, according to Williams.
Commissioners have previously indicated a willingness to contribute toward the project, using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. However, Daniels said Wednesday he wanted more information — including at the state level — on funding these homes.
Along with SOCS, South Central Power Communications received a similar grant award through the ORBEG program. Daniels asked if that impacted SOCS, and Cooper explained that both companies were awarded grant dollars for some of the exact same passings.
“Here's the situation with that,” Cooper said. “ORBEG granted South Central Power and Southern Ohio Communications many of the same houses, and both of us obligated to build this, under the current rules, so we don't know how it's going to roll out.”
According to Williams, of the 1,007 houses listed in Highland County funded under ORBEG, “941 of those addresses were awarded to us and South Central both. They [the state] used the money for the same house.”
“We have already engineered those houses,” Cooper said. “We paid for the engineering already. We have to apply to South Central to use their poles for their same area.”
Cooper added that the state is “aware of it,” but that SOCS has not received “an answer yet” on how the state will remedy the situation.
“He promised me that he would give me a solution, but they don't have it yet,” Cooper said.
“They said that that we both received money and we would both be obligated to build to their address and [residents] would have duplicate choices,” Williams added. “Personally, I don't think that's a smart way of spending the money because there [are] those 336 addresses that doesn't fall into their territory or doesn’t fall into the ORBEG that anybody got money for. They're kind of on the outside looking in at this point.
“To me, a logical thing would be to maybe switch them those addresses around. However, I don't know where South Central is in their build process. I mean, we’ve spent a lot of money on those 941 addresses already, engineering and submitting the information to South Central for the make-ready, so we're pretty far ahead on that.”
Highland County economic development director Julie Bolender asked about timelines and restrictions on using the ORBEG dollars, since it is connected to ARPA funds. Cooper said that they are getting an extension due to pole access issues.
“Ohio Broadband [BroadbandOhio] is very much aware of that — it’s not just us, it's everywhere across the state — so that timeline has been extended based on access to poles,” he said.
Williams said they was a “three-year timeline” for the funding initially, but that is not feasible.
“You can't get anything in three years,” he said. “We’ve waited a couple of years for some poles already that we put in — well, we put in poles pre-COVID, that we just got back last month.”
Cooper said they are still working through the ORBEG project “as fast as we can get the poles” while also looking for ways to pay for the other RDOF passings.
“I think earlier, we indicated that we might be able to set aside some funding to help with your unpassed areas,” Daniels said. “Honestly, I think right now, I think we have to wait and see what your resolution with South Central is going to be and if they're going to pick up some of those areas that don't get passed.
“I think that we need to see what that looks like, so maybe we can have additional conversations as that comes to a resolution. I think that we indicated early on that we wanted to help participate in some way, but let's see how your resolution comes with that. That would be my suggestion.”
Cooper said they could provide “a breakdown” however the county wants, including mapping out which passings of the 336 uncovered homes are AEP customers versus South Central Power.
“I think that would be helpful,” Daniels said. “If South Central picks up some of those that you might not be servicing that you had originally thought, then would some of that savings of not having to service those houses be something that you would pass on to those 336 that don't get [funding]?”
“We can do that if Ohio Broadband [BroadbandOhio] will allow us to do that,” Cooper said. “That’s the real key.
“It just doesn’t make sense for them to fund two companies [for the same properties].”
“Especially when there’s other homes that aren’t getting covered,” Williams added. “Aside from those 336, there's a lot of homes that aren't getting covered, because people gave their RDOF funds back. They're not being funded by anybody.
“They're out [of internet] for 10 years, so those are houses I would really take a deep look at as well.”
Daniels asked how the county could help, if at all, with communicating to BroadbandOhio leadership about the issue.
“They have to decide how they're going to manage that,” Cooper said. “If they say, ‘OK, since it’s is in South Central’s area, it’s on South Central poles and South Central's going to build it themselves,’ then they should release us from that obligation so that we could use those funds to build some of the unfunded area. That would be the presentation.”
Williams also said that this is “absolutely not” the only instance of funding being awarded to two companies for the same properties in the state.
Daniels made no promises but said “that gives us some idea” of suggestions to make if given the opportunity.
“It sounds like we need to talk to the lieutenant governor, because this is his program,” Britton said. “Why would he not get on board?”
Commissioners thanked SOCS for the update, while the SOCS representatives thanked commissioners for their willingness to help.
On a related note, Williams also encouraged the community to look into the Affordable Connectivity Program at ACPBenefit.org to save up to $30 per month on internet service if you meet eligibility requirements and have a participating provider.
“Just about everybody in southern Ohio fits in,” he said. “It’s a government-sponsored program, and it’s pretty simple to sign up. I think not only building the fiber out to these people that don't have access to it now is to find a way for them to be able to afford the access and know what to do with the access.”
For more from Wednesday’s meeting, see the story at: https://highlandcountypress.com/workforce-economic-development-discusse….