Monroe County commissioners haven’t given up on their $5 million plan to extend fiber internet to under-served areas of the county despite criticisms from local internet provider Forsyth Cable.
Forsyth Cable sent letters to state officials and to its customers in late April raising questions about the county’s plan to loan $5 million to cable man Davy Reynolds to extend fiber internet to 5,000 homes without it.
Forsyth Cable’s regulatory manager Stephen Bass wrote to Deana Perry, executive director of rural broadband for the state Department of Community Affairs, his concerns about Monroe County’s plan.
Bass said the county plans in Phase 1 to reach 1,057 homes over 68 miles for $700,000, which would be $5,622 per mile. Bass said his experience is that running fiber cost $30,000-$50,000 per mile.
“None of our contractors can see how this project is feasible,” wrote Bass.
Bass also wondered who would maintain the system and who would insure it.
Bass also wondered how the $5 million loan came about when the county’s original request for proposals only cited $700,000 the county has coming in sales tax revenues for internet expansion.
With Forsyth Cable expected soon to borrow $14 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for internet expansion, Bass said Forsyth Cable wants to have the same opportunity to expand internet service in Monroe County.
“If this pending deal with Reynolds Cable is not looked at with more scrutiny,” warned Bass, “it is creating a recipe for disaster for the county and a poor level of service for the community.”
Commissioner John Ambrose announced at commissioners meeting last Tuesday that he plans to write a letter to Perry in response.
“That was a low blow to the county and the county commission,” said Ambrose. “He’s basically saying we’re a bunch of idiots for doing this.”
Meanwhile, Forsyth Cable president Jim Bond emailed the company’s customers in targeted neighborhoods where the company recently expanded fiber internet asking them to sign a letter urging Monroe County commission chairman Greg Tapley to consider Forsyth Cable for local internet expansion.
“We absolutely support Forsyth CableNet and their expansion of fiber infrastructure in our community and county,” reads the letter. “This would benefit our county greatly and promote economic growth, so I implore you to consider them for the expansion of internet services in Monroe County.”
Amidst the debate, commissioners met with Forsyth Cable’s attorney, state Sen. John Kennedy, to discuss their differences last week. Commissioners had put a temporary moratorium on internet expansion in county right of way in April while they negotiated a deal with Reynolds. But after hearing complaints from Forsyth Cable that the moratorium would block their efforts already under way to extend fiber internet down King and Hill roads, commissioners rescinded the moratorium minutes later.
Still, commissioner George Emami said Forsyth Cable’s letter to its customers was unnecessary and regrettable.
Emami noted that he had written a letter to help Forsyth Cablenet get the $14 million loan from the USDA to expand internet. Emami said he understands Bond is upset because the county is partnering with someone else, but noted that he urged Bond to submit a proposal and he didn’t. And he said the plans Bond does have don’t include extending internet to the entire county.
Ambrose and Emami also went to Jefferson County, Ga. last week to check out Reynolds’ efforts there to do the same thing he’s proposing here. Ambrose came away impressed, saying they have a GPS-guided trencher that allows them to lay down fiber cable at a mile an hour. One difference is there’s a private company Zoom in Jefferson County funding the internet expansion so the county doesn’t have to get involved there.
Monroe County’s plan calls for it to loan Reynolds about $5 million to extend fiber over 329 miles to under-served Monroe County homes. Monroe County homes could subscribe to Reynolds’ fiber internet service for a one-time fee of $180 and then would pay $69.99 per month for 50 Megs of speed or $99.99 per month for 100 megs. Customers could also get Reynolds’ TV cable and telephone service. In turn Reynolds would pay back the $5 million over 5-10 years, using about 35 percent of net revenues. Once the bond is paid off, Reynolds would continue to collect $120 per year from customers to pay the county an estimated $126,000 in new revenue annually.
Sources tell the Reporter that commissioners Emami and Ambrose support the project, and that whether it happens or not comes down to the swing vote, commissioner Eddie Rowland.