Tri-County Electric commits $65M to install high-speed Internet in its service area

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Commissioners recently received the final report on the broadband infrastructure and construction plan from the consultant firm Government Services Group, Inc. (GSG), detailing what broadband services will best suit the county.
“GSG is pleased to announce that thanks to the work of all county stakeholders, the Jefferson County high-speed Broadband Initiative that will reach the largest number of residents at the most affordable price is progressing towards achieving its goal,” stated GSG Vice President David Jahosky in a transmittal letter to Planning Official Shannon Metty on March 11.
Central to the report was the news that Tri-County Electric Cooperative in March had entered a partnership with Conexon for the latter to design and build a fiber-optic network with the aim of serving two strategic purposes.
The first purpose, according to Johosky, was to provide smart-grid capabilities to improve electric service reliability; and the second to provide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) high-speed Internet to every Tri-County member through Conexon’s Internet service provider, Connect.
The project, according to the GSG report, will provide new broadband service to Jefferson, Madison, Taylor and the part of Dixie County in the Tri-County service area.
Tri-County is reported to have invested about $65 million to construct the fiber network to strengthen its electric grid and improve reliability.
“The Internet service will be powered by the Tri-County fiber network, and Conexon Connect will provide the retail service to homes and businesses, managing account set-up, customer service, and billing,” the report states.
The partnership is said will enable Tri-County to build a future-proof electric network that will help its communities thrive for decades to come, while indirectly filling the need of providing fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) Internet to its members.
The expectation is that the project will be completed in about three years, with construction and subscriber connections occurring in phases,
beginning with the substations, and the FTTH service eventually available to every Tri-County member who wants it.
The report notes that local leadership’s focus on solving broadband issues will have a longstanding impact on the county. Thus, the report states, Jefferson County’s strategic focus over the next year should be to inspire key stakeholders to complete certain critical milestones.
Among the many critical milestones that the report identifies are:
·      Utilizing existing federal and state programs to deliver broadband network services to all underserved county residents;
·      Leveraging Jefferson and Madison counties, Conexon Connect and Tri-County application to get about $16.6 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund once the 15-percent match requirement is met.
·      Making an application to the Office of Broadband in the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity for the capital projects fund.
·      Evaluating any available funding from the RESTORE ACT, which monies derive from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
·      Redesigning the county’s Request For Proposal to procure additional broadband services to address coverage gaps in Tri-County’s broadband network.
·      Keeping an eye on legislative actions and companion bills in the Florida Legislature that may provide additional funding resources.

The 25-page report notes that although many resident now have access to a mix of Internet services, many do not have robust broadband services. And CenturyLink, although it provides broadband service in denser residential neighborhoods, does not provide in the less populated areas, the report states.
Nor, the report goes to say, are private companies likely to make the necessary investment to install comprehensive broadband infrastructure in the underserved and un-served areas of the county, given the challenging economics of broadband deployment in rural areas absent some kind of financial support.
Thus, the report notes, state and federal funding programs present the best option for the county and its partners to fill the broadband gaps. And Jefferson County should continue its partnership with Tri-County, Conexon and Madison and Dixie counties to provide the high-speed Internet connectivity to the largest number of residents at the most affordable price.
Additionally, GSG recommends that the county not invest any grant funds into a fixed-wireless network solution, as the latter is not as scalable as a fiber solution, its available spectrum is limited, and it provides a lower bandwidth. Plus, the report notes, homes and businesses with substantial tree cover and terrain will get poorer performance from a fixed-wireless network.
“A firm that intends to construct any wireless solution in Jefferson County must fund the project from its own corporate network investment,” the report recommends.
GSG also recommends that with respect to the professional consultant services that the commission was seeking for broadband infrastructure engineering design and operations planning, the board should reject the two bids submitted as a subsequent analysis determined that much had changed since the RFPs were first put out and they no longer met the original intent.
Instead, GSG recommends that a redesigned RFP with established award criteria be created, in the event that there should be a need to procure additional broadband services. Specifically with regard to coverage of any existing gaps once the Tri-County broadband network is implemented, it recommends.
Commissioner Betsy Barfield lauded Julius Hackett, chief executive officer at Tri-County, for his hard work to get his board to raise the capital to do this project.
“You have to take your hat off to him,” Barfield said, underscoring that once Tri-County gets its members connected, it will be going outside its membership base.
“And that’s where we’re going to kick in with our monies, grants and the legislature,” Barfield said.
“It’s not that we can’t build the network ourselves,” Barfield added. “We have the money right now. It’s servicing it that network, that’s the stumbling block.”

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