Reflecting on the Journey (so far!) to Bring Broadband Options to Oglethorpe County

Sep 24, 2020

Reflecting on the Journey (so far!) to Bring Broadband Options to Oglethorpe County

By Amy Stone & published in the Oglethorpe ECHO, September 24, 2020

I was introduced to Oglethorpe County in 2014.  I was working as a planner in the private sector and the county manager came to my office looking for assistance with their comprehensive plan.  I’d lived in and around Athens for 12 years at that point, yet knew very little of her eastern neighbor.  Back then, Oglethorpe was on the heels of their “branding” process and had stacks of comments from their public with input not only about their future, but also their values and fears.   In order to adequately prepare to tackle the Comprehensive Plan, I read every single comment.  It appeared to me that this was a community that wanted to protect what they had.  It wasn’t a bedroom community aspiring to accommodate the needs of the big city next door.  Yes, they wanted some more shops and restaurants and businesses, but they also wanted wide open spaces, a modest pace of life and people who valued an honest day’s work.

 I worked with Oglethorpe off and on for the next three years, both on the comprehensive plan and then on some economic development initiatives in partnership with Clarke County.   When the opportunity came up to lead their economic development efforts, I went after it.    I liked the people I had worked with throughout the comp plan process.  I liked that folks seemed to know what they wanted, even if they weren’t entirely sure yet how to go after it.  I liked the leadership and the community pride.  I wanted to be a part of what Oglethorpe had going on.

For the first several months in the role, I was immersed in the getting to know the community.  County leadership, efforts of the Chamber and municipalities, business owners, public meetings.  I had come in with my own ideas of what Oglethorpe needed, based on traditional economic development strategies for recruiting business and industry, which all operated on the premise that you already have the basics covered.  I was envisioning industrial parks and career academies, but over and over, I was being told about the internet.  It was whispered between speakers at Rotary and it was shouted during public comment at Commission meetings.  I thought Oglethorpe had the internet – it wasn’t like folks weren’t posting on Facebook - but it clearly wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t meeting the needs of the people who lived and worked here.  It dawned on me that I had put the cart before the horse.   You can’t invite people to dinner if you don’t have a table to seat them at.  If Oglethorpe was going to recruit the kinds of people and businesses they wanted, they were going to have to have better internet access.

Not shockingly, my degree in landscape architecture and my experience as a planner and economic developer didn’t prepare me to be an internet expert.   I mostly use the internet to binge television and keep up with current events.  So when the members of the Economic Development Authority echoed the wishes of the general populace and determined that bringing robust, reliable internet to all of Oglethorpe was Priority #1, I had a certain amount of learning to do.  It started by meeting with the current providers, (called ISPs or Internet Service Providers) and understanding the technology they used.  Some used coaxial cable, others used phone lines or satellites in space.  We also talked to providers who were ISP’s in other communities.  They used fiber or hybrid fiber-wireless systems called “fixed wireless”.  We learned that anyone can be an ISP.  Your next-door neighbor can start a company and sell the internet.  We could start a company and sell the internet.  We discovered how much different technologies cost and what kinds of innovations were in the pipeline.

Overall, it was a lot to take in.  It was pretty overwhelming, in fact.  I got a little nervous.  It sounded very expensive and risky.  What if we did something and then no one signed up?  We decided that we before we invested a dollar of the community’s money that we needed to know for sure, in quantifiable terms, that we had a problem.  So we put out a survey.  It asked everything you would expect from a survey about the internet - accessibility, provider information, overall satisfaction –  but it also asked where the person lived and how much they would pay to get powerful internet.  And we didn’t just ask people who already had the internet, we asked everybody.  Our development authority members polled people idling in the car rider lines at the primary and elementary schools and pressured their neighbors into filling it out.  The Echo published a paper version that folks cut out and sent into my office.  When the tally was done, we had over 770 complete responses.  That was over 13% of the total households in the county.  And those 13% were NOT HAPPY.  There was an 80% dissatisfaction rate across the board.  There was one line where people could fill in anything they wanted about their experience with the internet and, for a community of mostly church-goers, we read a surprising number of  four letter words. 

With these condemning results in hand, we went into action mode.  We researched options, chased down funding.  We developed a regional roundtable with all of Northeast Georgia to source best practices.  We went looking for a clear solution and found there wasn’t one.  There was no centralized federal program to bring internet to rural America.  There was no state agency with a pile of money for broadband.  There wasn’t even an agreed upon method to determine if a community already had decent internet access.  If we were going to fix this problem, it was going to be up to us to make it happen – up to us to craft the solution and, of course, to fund it.

After much discussion, we elected to pursue a public-private partnership.  We saw where it had worked in other communities so we put together a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) that spelled out some high-level aspirations.  We asked for an ISP to bring us a solution that serves 1,000 households and includes an option for 25 mb download/ 3 mb upload speeds – defined as “broadband” by the FCC – that doesn’t cost more than $75 a month.  And bonus points for figuring out a way to provide funds back to the community so we can get rolling on the other 5,000 households sooner rather than later.  In exchange, we’ll supply the first $350,000 of the project’s cost.  We had a few ISP’s circling, but only one really landed.  After reviewing the proposal from Paladin Wireless, and seeing how it hit all the marks with the added bonus of providing back a per-month subscriber fee to the Development Authority, we were in business.  Sort of.

A public-private partnership of this kind hasn’t exactly been done.  Similar projects, sure, but those partnerships tend to set up the government as an ISP.  A local government operating the system works great when a structure exists to make it possible, like centralized billing or an IT department.  That’s not us.  We want the internet for our citizens but we didn’t want to create the bureaucracy to manage it.  So we enlisted Bill Berryman, a savvy former county attorney-turned-private counsel, to create a structure for our vision.  The structure he created is this: the EDA holds title to the project equipment while our partner provider, Paladin Wireless, operates the network.  Paladin leases the equipment from the EDA for a nominal fee for the lease term of 15 years. There is a separate performance and accountability agreement that governs how the network will function during the lease period.  At the end of 15 years, Paladin Wireless can purchase the network.   During the lease, the company provides the EDA a per-subscriber fee of $5/month until the initial investment is repaid and then the fee drops to $2.50.  The fees go into an account that is used to pay for the rest of the county’s network.  Bada bing, bada boom.

The agreement between the EDA and Paladin Wireless was signed on January 6th.  The network was initially set to “go live” six months later on July 1st, however - like so many events of 2020 - it was delayed.  Instead, it came online this month.  As you read this, test sites are firing up in the first phase of service.  Initial download speeds exceed 140 mb.  Paladin has set up an Oglethorpe home base in Oak Tree Plaza and is hiring installers and customer service representatives.  They are rolling out social media posts, radio ads and an Oglethorpe-exclusive Facebook page.  Folks can go to their website and enter their address or call their office to see if they are eligible for service.  When someone signs on, a small satellite dish-looking device is installed on their house which picks up the internet from a signal sent from one of two radio towers.  It’s all pretty darn exciting.

So what does this all mean for Oglethorpe County?  It means more people working reliably from home, more students connecting to their classrooms when necessary, more reliable connections for emergency services and more choices for how to connect for businesses. Simply put, it means folks here have another option to connect to the rest of the world when they need to. 

It also means that we can start inviting people over for dinner because we got ourselves a real nice table.  

Oglethorpe County Chamber of Commerce