Monday, November 15, 2021

Oconee County Broadband Contract With Charter Expected To Provide Nearly Complete County Coverage In About Two Years

***Federal Relief Funds To Be Used***

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners has decided to use $1.7 million in federal relief funds the county has in hand to pay Charter Communications to build out broadband in underserved areas mostly in the central and southern parts of the county.

The county’s grant isn’t likely to be all that Charter will need to invest to reach the 1,377 addresses tentatively identified as lacking adequate broadband service, but it is the amount that Charter requested in negotiations for the grant from the county.

Charter, which operates locally as Spectrum, has agreed to install a “wireline broadband network” capable of providing 1,000 Mbps (Megabits per second, or 1 Gigabit per second) download speed and 500 Mpbs upload speed with the money provided by the county.

Charter also has received a federal grant through the Federal Communications Commission to provide broadband service to 754 addresses largely in the southern part of the county.

Through these two grants, Charter estimates it will reach 98 percent of addresses in Oconee County with broadband service. The county is expecting the work to be completed in about two years.

The agreement the Commission has signed with Charter stipulates that Charter will retain “all ownership rights in the network” and its components once it is built.

Broadband has been a frequent topic of concern at Town Hall Meetings held by the Board of Commissioners in recent years.

It is likely the commissioners will discuss the agreement when they meet with the public in the next Town Hall meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday in the Banquet Room of the Civic Center, 2661 Hog Mountain Road, west of Butler’s Crossing.

Reversal Of Plans

The unanimous vote by the Board of Commissioners at its meeting on Nov. 2 to approve the contract with Charter represents a reversal of earlier plans in which the county was to partner with Smart City Capital for construction of a broadband network that the county would co-own and operate.

Kirouac (Left) Responds To Harden (Right) 11/2/2021

In August, the Commission voted to terminate that agreement, saying the model “was proving to not be viable.”

At the Board of Commissioners meeting on Oct. 26, County Administrator Justin Kirouac said that after terminating the agreement with Smart City Capitol the county held a series of meetings with broadband providers “looking for the best fit for the county.”

“The landscape for broadband has changed significantly in the past two years, and potential models and partnerships are available now that were not available at project inception,” he wrote to the commissioners in advance.

Kirouac has said that the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant closing of schools and workplaces underscored the importance of broadband services in the county.

In 2020, Oconee County Schools had to put buses with broadband connections in neighborhoods in the county to provide Internet service to parents and students who did not otherwise have the means to do remote learning.

Kirouac said the $1.7 million that the county will give to Charter under the grant comes from $3.9 million the county already has received from the federal government.

Comments At Nov. 2 Meeting

“The funding for this would come from the ARPA funds, American Rescue Plan funds, which are designated for COVID relief or either broadband or sewer connections,” Kirouac said at the Nov. 2 meeting.

“And so this lines up directly with some of the funding that we previously didn't have two years ago,” he added.

Commissioner Amrey Harden asked Kirouac to explain the change in plans represented by the grant to Charter.

“So I think I was very clear from the beginning I did not want to get into the operational side of broadband or even the partnership,” Kirouac said. The previous plan “contemplated a $4.5 million county contribution” to the partnership, he added.

“This is more of a direct contract payment,” he said. “Oconee County is out of the broadband business, and those who know how to run the broadband business will be running broadband.”

“It is essentially a grant relationship with Charter where we are going to subsidize portions of the county that don't make economic sense--without some subsidy--to build out.”

“It's exciting,” Commission Chair John Daniell said. “It's been on our list for quite a long time. It's been a very complicated process and we're taking a lot of swings at different balls coming across.

“This is a good deal for the county,” he added. “It's going to be a lot quicker as far as timeline. And the best part is you don't get calls on Friday night that there's somebody's cable is out.”

Financial Terms of Agreement

Under the terms of the agreement the county signed with Charter after the Commission vote on Nov. 2, Charter agreed to install a wireline broadband network capable of providing 1,000 Mbps download and 500 Mpbs upload to a project service area consisting of 1,377 addresses in the county.

The project area is made up of noncontiguous parts spread around the county.

Oconee County is obligated to pay $1,377,000 to Charter, or $1,000 per address, half at execution of the contract and half once 1,000 addresses have been activated.

Oconee County also agreed to pay an additional $200 for each broadband connection in the area completed in Calendar Year 2022.

This brings the “potential maximum” cost to $1,652,400.

The contract states that the cost estimates provided by Charter of $1,000 per address “are preliminary in nature” and are “subject to revision based on archeological finding and other factors identified during final engineering.”

The contract states that the parties “agree to promptly meet and discuss in good faith appropriate modifications to this Scope of Work upon the request of either Party.”

Additional Addresses

The contract that the county negotiated with Charter also states that “field verification” will be used to determine if each of the 1,377 addresses does indeed qualify for service.

If the total number of addresses identified through field verification exceeds 1,377 addresses, Charter agrees to extend the network based on a prorated payment structure of $1,000 per additional address with an $200 per address if the service is activated in 2022.

Charter agreed to establish a portal for Oconee County residents to submit requests for service, regardless of where the person lives.

Under the terms of the separate grant Charter has received from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), Charter has agreed to provide service to the 754 addresses in that service area by 2027.

These are in addition to the 1,377 addresses covered by the contract between Oconee County and Charter.

In the contract between Oconee County and Charter the commissioners approved on Nov. 2, Oconee County also agreed to pay Charter $200 per address in the area covered by the FCC grant for each addressed activated by Dec. 31, 2022.

Red And White On Map Explained

At the Oct. 26 meeting of the Board of Commissioners, Catherine Fleming, director of State Government Affairs for Charter in Georgia, based in Duluth, presented a map of the area covered by the contract with the county and area covered by the FCC grant.

Fleming said that the red areas on the map are of the 1,377 unserved addresses “the county will be investing in to help get those built out.”

“When we say unserved,” she said, ‘These are the locations that lack access to a reliable 25 3 speed.” The reference is to 25 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload).

The speeds that we will be providing are much higher than 25 3,” she said. “They are gig capable. Symmetrical speed capable.”

Gigabit broadband is an Internet connection that offers a speed of 1 Gigabit per second, or the 1,000 Mbps specified in the contract. A symmetric internet connection means the connection provides the same download and upload speeds, at the same time.

The white area on the map, Fleming said, is where Charter or another provider, such as AT&T, already provide broadband connections.

If someone living in one of the white areas on the map is not passed by broadband, that person can inform the county or Charter, Fleming said.

Blue On Map

The blue area on the map “represents the 754 locations that have been funded by the federal government for us to provide a fiber to the premises,” Fleming told the commissioners on Oct. 26.

Charter's Map Of Service Areas
Red Area Covered By Contract With County
Blue Area Covered By Federal Grant
White Area Currently Served

The blue areas are Census Blocks that the Federal Communication Commission has designated as unserved and eligible for monies from its $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

Charter, through a reverse auction in which it offered to provide its services, has been awarded funding to serve 754 addresses in the blue areas.

The RDOF area was scheduled to be built out by Charter in 2027.

Fleming said with the contract with Oconee County for the red underserved area “we're able to build off that and have what we call a synergy build so that this will all be happening at the same time throughout the county, both the blue and the red areas.”

Kirouac told the commissioners on Nov. 2 that “We're looking at approximately a two-year completion” of the project.

Confidence In Map

“The map is somewhat rudimentary,” Fleming warned at the Oct. 26 meeting. “I asked them to kind of shade the areas. So one of these locations might be right outside the red area. When it comes down to it, all this mapping, it really has to be verified in the field.”

This is supposed to happen over 90 days.

Ben Breazzeale, senior director for Regional Government Relations, based on Columbia, S.C., who also attended that Oct. 26 Commission meeting, said “I expect that 1,377 is a conservative estimate” of the underserved addresses in the red area.

“Typically we find more addresses, maybe 10 or 20 percent more addresses,” he said. “But we sometimes find less.”

“I’m 85 percent confident in the map,” he said.

Breazzeale said work on the blue areas at present is “slightly ahead of the red areas” because the money already was in place.

Map Itself

The map has relatively large red areas north of Watkinsville, including around Bogart.

Crystal Hills and Lake Wellbrook also are shaded red.

A few blue dot census block are in the far north of the county.

Fleming told Commissioner Mark Saxon at the Oct. 26 meeting she could offer no explanation for those blocks.

“The federal government has said there’s a location,” she said. It could be a “shack and field right now and no one’s living there. That’s why you have to have field verification.”

The map also shows some red areas in the far south of the county, that is, areas that are not covered by the federal grant but will be covered by the subsidy from the county.

Other Details

The contract with Charter does not specify how far Charter will run the fiber optic cable to the home, and Kirouac used 1,000 feet at the Oct. 26 meeting.

On Nov. 2, he updated that figure to 1,300 feet, and Kirouac said in an email message on Nov. 5 that the 1,300 figure is now being used by Charter.

Home owners will have to pay about $5 or $6 per foot for any distance beyond that, Charter’s Breazzeale said at the October meeting, based on past contracts.

Kirouac said that Charter will set its own rates for its service and there are no restrictions on rates in the contract signed by the county.

“The county is not regulating the cost of services,” Kirouac said in that Nov. 5 email. “This is a grant to assist network build out to areas that have proven to be infeasible economically.”

Cost Comparisons

“We talked to several potential partners and various options in the last few months,” Kirouac said, “and the amount the county intends to spend with this deal is significantly less than other options we considered.

“For general comparison, if you consider an estimate of $60,000 per mile of fiber at 250 miles, that would equate to $15 million,” he added.

The Charter plan is for 250 miles of fiber optic cable, Fleming said at the Oct. 26 meeting.

Kirouac said in an email on Nov. 15 that “$60,000 per mile is a general industry number that we've been provided over discussions over the past few years.

“It can range anywhere from $40,000 to $90,000 depending on the complexity of the build,” he added


The embedded video below is on the Oconee County YouTube web site.

Kirouac began discussing the broadband contract at 20:30 in the video.

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