On today’s opinion page, readers will find a letter to the editor from Cynthia Cuenin, a resident on the east end of Jackson County, near Grand Ridge. In it, Cuenin expresses her frustration with what she describes as a lack of reliable, affordable high-speed internet in that area of the county.
Cuenin said it’s affecting her children’s ability to carry out their studies, and that it negatively affects her as a business owner as well. She says the internet is not a luxury but a necessity as critical as electricity. She said she’s at the point of considering a move out of the area she loves because of this one issue.
And Cuenin blames the county government, at least in part, for the lack of better widespread high-speed access.
Jackson County Administrator Wilanne Daniels was asked to respond to the concerns Cuenin expressed. In one way, it appears Cuenin is singing to the choir. But in another way, Daniels said, the county’s power to solve the problem is limited.
“I completely empathize with this citizen’s frustration,” Daniels said. “Most of us in Jackson County have experienced less than desirable internet speeds or availability, at one time or another. We have many school-aged children that do not have the access to high-speed internet that they deserve.”
But, she adds, “the challenge before us is simple: funding. We need the resources to build infrastructure or we have to be able to demonstrate to providers that there is adequate demand to provide a rapid and growing return on investment. If the county had between $8 million and $16 million, we could build the infrastructure required so that any provider could lease the utility; however, the providers would still want to feel confident that the community would purchase services.”
If the middle figure of that $8-16 million estimate were used as the basic anticipated cost, that $12 million price tag would swallow up every property tax dollar the county expects to generate, plus some. Subtracting the five percent of anticipated property tax dollars from the total, as required by state law, the county built its budget based on the expectation that it will receive $11,270,783 in property taxes and has built those dollars into the operating budget for the coming year. That money, along with state and federal dollars, helps with a wide variety of cost associated with running county government and providing many different services to citizens.
And even if the county were able to spend that money on the basic infrastructure, it would cost many millions more to build out the service across the entire county and its most rural, relatively isolated areas. In 2017, when the county began talking to a group made up of investors and fiber optic cable builders about the potential of the county and/or others building out such a system, the total start-up cost was estimated at $36 million, with the most rural areas included.
It would be impossible to take all those tax dollars for the internet problem, but the county is diligently trying to solve the dilemma, Daniels said.
“The Board of County Commissioners is currently participating in the REDI (Rural Economic Development Initiative) grant with Purdue to create an Intelligent Community Plan. This plan is intended to outline easy and affordable strategies to expand internet access to residents before full infrastructure build-out,” she said. “This will demonstrate to providers that there is an eager market for their product in Jackson County and support easier paths to quality and affordable internet access as infrastructure is built countywide.”
She also pointed out that there’s a new way coming for local citizens to put some skin in the game.
“The County is forming a Broadband Action Team (BAT) that we hope will include a combination of Jackson County’s business, education, and professional leaders as well as Jackson County’s next generation of leaders,” she said. “The BAT will be charged with implementing and measuring progress of the Intelligent Community Plan and ensuring all of Jackson County has the greatest access possible to the latest technology advances in communication. If you are interested in participating in this team, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We can provide a description of the BAT and what your involvement would entail.”
Additionally, she said, “the Board recently authorized staff to pursue grant opportunities to bring broadband to Jackson County. I want to stress that pursuing funding does not guarantee funding, but we are committed to seeking funding until we are successful in securing it. The Board of County Commissioners understands the necessity for our community to have reliable and affordable service. Many areas in the county already have reliable internet service, but the goal is to pursue means to provide reliable service to all areas of the county. I hope this response will encourage citizens in the knowledge that their leaders are pursuing this service for Jackson County and that the commissioners and staff are not sitting idly by, ignoring this concern, but rather are actively engaged in seeking out a solution to this issue.”