Butler County considers funding to expand broadband to rural reaches

Some Butler County students must go to lengths including sitting in school or business parking lots to access the internet, so the Butler County commissioners are considering a $4 million-plus proposal to help .

The commissioners heard a $3.9 million proposal from the Butler Rural Electric Cooperative (BREC) and Cincinnati Bell this week to bring high-speed broadband to about 2,700 Butler County rural locations. They are hoping to cash in on nearly $75 million the commissioners were awarded in American Rescue Plan Act funding.

Former County Administrator and BREC engineering manager Charlie Young told the Journal-News the pandemic has made it painfully evident high-speed internet is crucial in surviving this remote-working world with “children having to drive and sit outside a high school or having to go to a place that has some kind of a wi-fi connection so they could do their homework.”

Young told the commissioners they want to help “overcome the digital divide” in the county and need $3.9 million for the second phase of a project to bring broadband to the rural areas of the county. Cincinnati Bell is also using $4 million of its own for the project. He said they sought other grant funding but were told “we’re not rural enough, we’re not poor enough, we’re not underserved enough to qualify.”

A first phase brought fiber optic access to 2,100 BREC customers in the county. BREC General Manager Tom Wolfenbarger said because the organization gets funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is limited in how it can spend its money, so it partnered with Cincinnati Bell.

One of the goals of the ARPA funding is to serve the underprivileged and expanding broadband infrastructure is one of five main objectives the U.S. Treasury has outlined. Commissioner Don Dixon asked how some of these low income residents will be able to pay for high speed internet even if it is available in their area.

“I look at my bills and you know some of them are bigger than my house payment used to be,” Dixon said, referring to the $4 million cost that would only serve about 2,700 residents.

Simple math would put the cost at around $1,480 per customer. Ted Heckmann with Cincinnati Bell said they charge a monthly service fee, not the cost to build the network. He added there are a couple federal programs available to help offset the expenses for the poor.

He mentioned the Federal Communication Commission’s Lifeline program that provides a $9.25 monthly discount to low-income internet users. A newer program was targeted toward helping people through the pandemic. Under the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit qualified people can receive a discount of up to $50 a month on their bills and a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet, with certain conditions.

Gov. Mike DeWine came to Middletown in May to officially sign a bill that provided $20 million to expand internet access. About 1.25 million residents have no high-speed internet options at all.

Discussion during the work session turned to the county’s own fiber optic network that has been plagued with problems from the start, including federal litigation that sent some officials to prison. Dixon wanted to know if it could be used to reduce costs. Young said there is very little capacity left and it doesn’t easily reach where they need it to go.

Young told the Journal-News the county might not be able to enter into an agreement with Cincinnati Bell without a request for proposals process.

“We’ve had great success with Cincinnati Bell and if we had the money and we were going to do this project we’d continue what we’ve done with them,” Young said. “But if the county needs to go through a competitive process but they’re willing to fund it then so be it, let’s go through that process and whoever wins, wins.”

Dixon told the Journal-News they’ve been looking at this issue for awhile and he still hopes they can utilize some of the county’s network to make it more affordable for residents.

“I haven’t seen a deal yet that’s a good deal for the taxpayers, I’m not interested in helping one of the big publicly traded companies get bigger so they can control the price even more,” Dixon said. “So if there is a way we could use our part (of the fiber network) to buy down that cost and get something reasonable and affordable, I’d be glad to listen to that.”

A group of townships and the Talawanda Schools are expected to make their own broadband pitch to the commissioners next week.

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