When they held working sessions last summer on requests to share their allocation of $74.4 million in federal ARPA funds, they heard from two groups about the dire need for high-speed Internet access at the county level.
During the height of the pandemic when students in the Talawanda school district were forced into remote learning, the city’s assistant city manager Jessica Green told them the city spent $16,000 to buy 380 hotspots so they could. She said the problem is more widespread.
“I think this is a huge issue of economic access, equality to education, employment, public health, job growth…,” Green said. “Before COVID it was annoying, after COVID it was critical.”
ARPA’s rules and regulations have changed several times as the federal government expands allowable uses of the $350 billion earmarked to help local governments survive the pain of the pandemic. Broadband has long been one of the specifically permitted uses of money.
Boyko told Journal-News that qualification requests require potential service providers to demonstrate that they have the technical expertise to handle a job that will have good upload and download speeds and that their financial resources are “strong enough that you are close enough to continue providing these services.”
On the proposal side, they want to know the actual plan.
“The county wants you to understand what your proposed methodology is to publish on the terms and conditions that Butler County wants,” Boyko said. “Some of these terms and conditions are your model, your infrastructure deployment practice, what your market share is currently and your ability to provide it to the standards we have set.”
She said the service should be affordable for the customers it will serve and that they can provide it to every entity – residential, commercial or government – within the service area. The budget is $10 million, she said, so they also want options in case they need to scale back the project.
Former County Administrator and Director of Butler Rural Cooperative Engineering, Charlie Young, presented the commissioners with a $3.9 million offer to provide high-speed broadband to approximately 2,700 rural locations in Butler County, in partnership with Cincinnati Bell. They’ve since made another deal and don’t need the commissioners’ money for their project.
Young told Journal News that he sought to find out just how much the county lacked enough internet by using the Broadband Ohio website, which isn’t easy. His best guess is that only 55% of people have real, reliable, high-speed access.
The last time high-speed internet was a county issue was the fiber-optic Dynus scandal that began in 2005. Former county auditor Kay Rogers, former commissioner Mike Fox and others went to federal prison for their role in the disaster.
Dynus Corp. has been contracted. by Butler County to operate the county’s fiber-optic system, which was built to help stimulate economic development. Rogers was at the center of the scandal, forging documents that secured loans to Dynus in the county’s name.
District Attorney Mike Gmosser’s office has combed through the RFP and said any vendors will also be fully vetted.
“The money that is saved that can certainly be spent has a very strong public purpose for it and a strong equal service to it and a benefit to the general population and especially the students who will be served in those areas,” Gmosser said. “It is very difficult to sue her as long as all the people are dotted, they are cross sands, and we have no bastards sticking their noses to take advantage of them. This is where someone like me will always be available to make sure that the problems of the past, before my time, which I am well aware of. It won’t happen again.”