County considering broadband deal

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Tony London submitted a photo

A letter of intent with a New York City infrastructure investment company that could eventually result in the installation of fiber optic lines across the county sparked some apprehension among Bartholomew County commissioners on Monday. .

County attorney Grant Tucker assured commissioners the letter only required the county to “act in good faith” with Meridiam Infrastructure North America Corp. to work together to conclude a contract by the end of the year. If both parties approve the deal in early 2022, the New York-based company will embark on an estimated $ 50 million project to bring high-speed internet service to the vast majority of Bartholomew County.

The original terms of the letter would have made Meridiam the exclusive supplier of new fiber optic cables for 25 years in return for reaching 85% of all homes in Bartholomew County. Optical fiber provides what is needed for high-speed upload and download capabilities, Commissioner Tony London said.

“We’re going to start with a high speed fiber optic that could instantly reach 10 GB with the current configuration,” said London, who chairs the Bartholomew County Broadband Initiative Committee.

The letter of intent was approved unanimously. But not before Commissioners Chairman Larry Kleinhenz made a change to require the New York-based company to include a minimum of 90% of all non-municipal housing outside the city limits of Columbus in their coverage. infrastructure.

London and Commissioner Carl Lienhoop both supported Kleinhenz’s change. London reaffirmed an earlier statement that the goal is to continue to scale until 100% of rural households are reached.

Tucker assured commissioners that the letter of intent will allow the county to solicit requests for proposals this year from Meridiam’s competitors, and will not lock the county into any obligation until a contract is signed the year. next.

“We’re working on a (request for proposals),” Kleinhenz said. “We definitely want other companies to participate.”

But no other company has offered anything close to what Meridiam has offered, Tucker said.

While most ISPs want to recoup their investment in five to seven years, Meridiam offers a much longer payback period of 25 years, London said.

In addition, existing internet providers will be allowed to continue operating in the county and no resident will be forced to change service without their consent, London said.

Judging by the number of residents who spoke on Monday via video conference or text message, the concept appears to have strong public support.

Jon Meyer, who resides along County Road 800W north of Mt. Healthy Road, said he filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission about his current internet service provider. Meyer says the company was charging $ 700 a month last year at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic for equipment that often breaks down in bad weather.

“I think this (letter of intent) is taking us in the right direction as it reverses the model that has failed to serve rural customers,” Meyer said.

London read a text from a West Georgetown Road couple who said they don’t have fiber optic cable near their home, as well as landline, self-service and little satellite service. reliable.

“Our choices are not limited, they are non-existent,” the couple said. “This is not a third world country, in the middle of the ocean, on top of a mountain or in the middle of a desert. We’re in Bartholomew County, Indiana, and there’s no excuse. “

Current estimates indicate that high-speed internet access obtained through the proposed deal with Meridiam could cost less than $ 100 per month, London said. Efforts are also underway to make high-speed service more affordable for skilled low-income families, he said.

When another member of the public asked about the estimated 18 months it will take to complete the fiber optic infrastructure, Tucker said it was in Meridiam’s best interests to move forward on as quickly as possible. That’s because the letter of intent says the county will not pay the New York company money until at least 80 percent of the county has the service available to it, the district attorney said. county.

Tucker is referring to $ 4 million set aside by the county to bring high-speed internet to remote homes, London said. These funds will come from the county’s share of federal money allocated for COVID-19 relief by the US bailout.

But Kleinhenz said he found 20% without broadband internet troubling because that would equate to 3,200 homes in Bartholomew County. The president of the commissioner said he would try to negotiate the acceptable number of homes without fiber optic cable at 5%.

Although London has said representatives of Meridiam will participate via video conference, no representative of the company spoke at the commissioner’s meeting on Monday.

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