County looks to verify numbers of internet proposal | News

Mason County Administrator Fabian Knizacky reported at the county board meeting in December that the county did not receive any bids to install a fiber-optic network to provide the ability to have internet to each homeowner and business in the county.

That didn’t come as a surprise, though, for Mike Reen, the municipal program manager for Aspen Wireless. Reen continues to work with the community-led Connect Mason County group since the COVID-19 pandemic further exposed areas in the county with and without internet access. Aspen Wireless is a development, consulting, engineering, building and maintenance firm when it comes to internet access.

Knizacky said after the county’s Buildings, Planning, Drains and Airport Committee, he was directed to develop a request for proposal to have an independent consultant review the feasibility study and the financial projections Aspen Wireless made in its work.

Reen said the county continues to check off boxes to be in line with the state’s METRO Act of 2002. The law was passed to push bringing about “affordable high-speed internet connections.”

To move further down the path, Reen said the county still needs to do a cost-benefit analysis and make it available for the public for 30 days of viewing. It also would need to host a public hearing. From there, the county could install its own network through funding in a variety of ways.

For the county to have an independent review makes sense, Reen said.

“We recommend this to all of our clients,” he said. “Don’t take our word for it alone. We feel you should get an outside entity and kick the tires on our model. The last three significant projects we worked on in Marshall, Coldwater and Branch County, they did this with three different accounting firms…

“We recommended to find someone to check our math.”

Reen said his firm also recommended to the county to have Aspen Wireless update its costs models, too, in light of various market factors that took place over the last handful of months.

“The nationwide push for 5G has put a tremendous amount of pressure on the supply chain. There are other supply-chain issues. It has also created quite a tremendous change in material costs. Labor costs have gone up,” Reen said. “That’s changed a little bit, but too dramatically. The material prices have changed significantly.”

The plan developed by Aspen Wireless was for building out a fiber-optic network in the City of Ludington and Sherman and Meade townships. Those costs were then applied to the county as a whole, Reen said.

“They are 95 percent for construction drawings. There are some things not in the drawings, but it’s not a heavy lift,” he said. “We can figure out the cost to get it per home for both rural and urban (addresses). We applied costs to rural and urban to address sites. … That’s all in the report. We’ll need to update the total price so we can say it’s going to be this, and the cost per subscriber is this. We (also) recommend that if (the network) is built, to do it underground (and not on power or telephone poles). Those are the only changes to the existing report.”

Reen said his firm’s recommendation is to bury the cable instead of paying one of the utility companies to even consider placing fiber optic cable on their poles. And he said his experience is not every pole is included in the permission to place on it. Building the network underground cuts out the cost of paying the utilities to consider using those poles.

Reen said Branch County — which Coldwater is the county seat and is along the Michigan-Indiana state line — is slightly ahead of Mason County with its work on perhaps bringing internet to all of its residents.

“They’re doing a cost finalization study now,” Reen said. “We promised to have that done by the end of January. That will start the 30-day clock.”

After the step for the public hearing, then the project becomes a matter of how to finance it. Reen said there are several options, should it reach that point, from grants to bonds to millages — if it stays wholly as a public enterprise. A public-private partnership could also emerge at that time.

To get to that point, though, the costs for Mason County’s plan need to be updated, and an independent audit is the way to go, Reen said.

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