Columbia County’s broadband network up and running… and ready to start making money
Now that the towers are up and the fiber is in the ground, Columbia County is preparing to launch its much-anticipated broadband network.
Recently, the Board of Commissioners established a fee schedule for all the different aspects of the network, meaning the county can now start charging for service, and while the fee schedule is not spellbinding reading, it’s an important step in the evolution of the project.
According to Deputy Administrator Glenn Kennedy, the network has always been one of those “if you build it, they will come” projects.
“In terms of the towers — 300-foot towers which provide coverage really county-wide — that’s all public record, so it’s common practice for carriers to approach other tower owners for co-location,” Kennedy says. “So, for tower space, for lack of a better word, it really sells itself. In terms of the fiber itself, it’s really just a matter of getting out there and talking to the right people, and then again, some of your cable carriers — your Comcasts and your Knologys — are fully aware of what we’re doing because we’ve made them aware of what we’re doing.”
And it’s not like the telecommunications industry hasn’t kept tabs on those who earned the federal broadband stimulus grants.
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, $7.2 billion was directed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications Information Administration to expand broadband access across the nation. Primarily focused on underserved rural areas — and Columbia County has no shortage of rural areas — the money was awarded to communities with great fanfare. Columbia County was awarded $13.4 million and kicked in an additional 25 percent.
Broadband manager Lewis Foster believes it was that local commitment — a 20 percent local match was all that was required — was a big factor in the county receiving the grant, and that having that infrastructure in place will go a long way toward positioning the county as a forward thinking economic community.
“We’re competing against other states and other economies,” he says. “That’s the whole idea of this infrastructure — to encourage development and use that as a value add to develop more for our community.”
“Having a network like this available does bring you to the cutting edge,” he says. “If you look at some of the other places where it’s gone in, it’s either been in different parts of the country where they’re progressive and moving along economically, or they’re so rural they needed something. And I think when you look at Columbia County, we’re certainly in the category of moving forward.”
He says it not only makes the county better, it makes the county better to sell.
One of the first and most important community anchor institutions to tap in was the Sheriff’s Department, which purchased a new radio network that utilized the county’s broadband network.
“No sooner did we start passing light down the fiber and making sure it was running sufficiently than we threw the sheriff’s new radio network on,” Kennedy says. “That was a $6 million investment in that radio system, so you’re not going to run that over a second rate network.”
According to Foster, the Sheriff’s Department is using the infrastructure to transport all their voice information, including 911.
“It has performed flawlessly,” Kennedy says of the marriage of the radio system and the broadband network. “You can’t separate one without tying it to the other, and that’s been good publicity.”
With that first major success out of the way, Foster has been busy connecting other county offices to the network.
“We’re kind of spending a lot of time with our community anchor institutions getting them up and running and trying to educate them on what they can do with all this technology,” Foster says. “We’re in the process of connecting some water utility facilities as well as connecting the fire department as they transition over to the county.”
Another early connector was the Harlem Library, and branch Manager Amanda Cash has noticed a big difference with the wireless internet.
“It runs 24/7, and before we had some issues with the wireless not working correctly and being really slow and lagging,” she says. “But since they switched us, it actually moves a lot faster and works so much better.”
It works so good, in fact, that it’s not unusual to see area kids sitting on the steps with their laptops after hours taking advantage of the wireless internet signal.
One of the common misconceptions is that the broadband infrastructure provides free internet for the entire county, which Kennedy says couldn’t be further from the truth.
As what’s called a middle mile provider, the county has made sure it is not directly competing with private business, and free wireless internet would definitely be interfering with the marketplace.
“The only place we’re really bringing it into is government institutions, fire stations, the Sheriff’s Department and the parks,” Kennedy says. “If we were providing that last mile to the public, you could see how that would put us in direct competition with private companies. We’d rather have a relationship with them where it’s complementary as opposed to competing.”
That’s because, as that middle mile provider, the county can lease space to all sorts of providers, which is how it plans to use the network to do what Kennedy said — make the county better while at the same time making it better to sell.
As far as getting the different buildings connected, Kennedy says they’ve encountered nothing more than the usual problems, and the more buildings they bring online, the easier it seems to get.
Foster especially has been trying to face this transition period with calm.
“You don’t want to get spread so thin and have so many things going on that you can’t focus,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to manage your resources and also manage your problems.”
Though Foster basically oversees the entire program with only one other employee, he does utilize several outside contractors to help with specific issues.
“Right now, we’re trying to minimize our overhead, but we’re evaluating to hopefully get additional personnel,” he says. “But we don’t exactly know what personnel we need and we don’t want tire hire someone just to be hiring them.”
Recently, the county has been excited by hospital talk. It wouldn’t be the first time a hospital considered a Columbia County location, but it would be the first time that it considered one with the broadband network in place.
“That’s the whole purpose of putting this infrastructure out there,” Foster says. “It’s so people can get access and therefore not spend as much money in build out so they can provide excellent service at a minimal cost long-term and actually bring in jobs and bring in help to our local economy.” You Might Also Like: