An Ohio county is considering building a fiber-optic network even though several providers in the area already offer broadband-capable speeds.
The Stark County Area Broadband Task Team recently heard a presentation from Magellan Advisors in which the consulting firm advised the county to create a broadband authority and consider a 130-mile middle-mile fiber-optic backbone with an estimated cost of $22.5 million.
That plan could result in several more government-owned municipal broadband developments.
“An additional benefit of the middle-mile fiber backbone, is that it would provide political sub-divisions the ability to develop their own fiber initiatives,” Magellan wrote.
Stark County leaders began looking into the issue in 2014, entering with the mindset that internet access should be considered as important as power, water or sewer service — even dubbing the project page outlining the plans The Fourth Utility.
“We can’t afford not to do this,” Stark County Commissioner Richard Regula said at the presentation at Kent State University Stark campus.
In its analysis of the Stark County internet market, Magellan picked a number of residential and commercial sites by address, selected randomly in various sections of the county. Magellan’s team contacted each telecom provider identified as operating wireline services in the market to determine service availability.
The consultant noted there are two provider options for most addresses, hardly making Stark County a high-speed internet desert.
Twelve of 13 randomly selected residential locations could get Time Warner internet with speeds up to 50 megabits per second — or twice the Federal Communications Commission’s standard for broadband — for $64.99 per month. Slower speeds were also available for lower monthly rates.
All 10 randomly selected business locations could get speeds of at least 18 mbps, which puts them only slightly lower than current broadband standards. They do pay much more, however — $210 per month for those buying the Time Warner 50 mbps plan.
Magellan identified nine private providers that operate within the county as part of its report.
The company didn’t return a call from Watchdog.org on Wednesday requesting comment on the report.
Greg Lawson, senior policy analyst for the free-market oriented Buckeye Institute, said that given the internet landscape of Stark County, there’s no reason for government to get into the business.
“The only true justification is to provide service to underserved areas,” he told Watchdog, noting that even then there are usually other options available such as wireless service on phones.
“When you’ve got multiple providers who are providing adequate service, you’ve got what you need,” Lawson added.
The backbone suggested by Magellan would connect 140 community anchors, such as libraries, schools and hospitals and provide 1-gigabit capable download speeds within 1,000 feet of more than 8,000 businesses.
The consultant said the project would pay for itself within 20 years with “conservative projections,” while also noting the county could tap a number of federal program to pay the upfront costs, including the FCC’s Connect America and Healthcare Connect funds and the Rural Utility Service’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program.
The task team notes that a good portion of Stark County’s commercial activity and population center is along the North-South Whipple corridor, and is looking first at deploying loop fiber-optic architecture there to capture the area with the likely largest demand.
“One of the findings the Task Team has found in previous broadband initiative failures were overly ambitious build-out plans based upon flawed assumptions and a lack of subscribers per mile. By addressing this dense corridor first, a network could capture the densest subscribers per mile in the county, before addressing additional phases to provide service to other regions,” the task team wrote.
“Using a deliberate, phased approach will help mitigate risk of large capital costs vs subscriber take-up rates as well as the possibility of disruptive technology change.”
Technology change is a factor governments must consider in an increasingly wireless world that could one day make fiber obsolete. Google Fiber, for example, which is pivoting toward wireless, has been called “a dead business model walking.” The next iteration of wireless — 5G — is expected to offer 1 gig speeds, and AT&T is testing technology to send broadband along power lines.
Lawson said government broadband projects have been popping up in parts of Ohio with more frequency recently, with “a lot of pie in the sky thoughts” for enticing business relocations or vastly improving emergency communications. He argues those plans rarely work out as expected — and tend to be much more costly to taxpayers — and that broadband implementation should be left up to the private sector.
“There’s no question [broadband] is an important part of our lives, but it’s not power, it’s not water, it’s not sewer,” he said. “It’s not a core function of government.”