$4M in Covid-19 funding being considered for Dubois County broadband buildout

Dubois Rural Electric Coop and at least two broadband providers, PSCi and Orange County Fiber, approached the Dubois County Council to help fund the addition of miles of fiber optic internet Dubois County.

The county commissioners have identified the broadband buildout as well as wastewater improvements as two projects they would like to consider being funded or partially funded with the $8.3 million the county received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP).

At the request of Dubois Strong, REC plans on partnering with fiber carriers on a plan to speed up broadband buildouts in Dubois County. The fuel for the faster buildout would come in the form of an investment of $4.35 million from the ARP funds that the county received.

“We are not in the broadband business,” REC CEO Joe Hensen explained to the county council Monday evening. “So, we decided make-ready was the way to go to speed up the deployment.”

According to Hensen, make-ready is the process REC is going through to make the electrical utility poles ready for the fiber to be installed. This would involve ensuring the poles are up to the standards necessary for the additional connections including the spacing that is needed between the electrical service and fiber service — he stated they need 40 inches clearance between the two.

They would like to begin a study of about 20,000 utility poles to determine their suitability for being used to run the fiber through the county. This make-ready study and deployment could cut the broadband expansion through the area from up to seven years down to two years.

The study and updates are estimated to cost $4.35 million, according to Hensen.

“24 months is not very long to get this done,” Hensen said. “Dubois REC would take off on make-readies for about six to nine months and then the broadband deployment would begin after that. They’d be chasing us to completion … they’re going to power up homes with broadband coming behind us.”

He explained that Orange County Fiber has plans to run 400 miles of fiber through the county of which 66 miles is already completed. PSCi will run 117 miles of fiber in the county.

The $4.35 million only covers the cost of the pole make-ready project. Matt Deaton, CEO of Orange County REMC/Fiber said the total buildout was estimated to be up to a $22 million project. They have received about $7 million in grants through the state’s connectivity program, Next Level Connections.

Hensen told the council that if they agreed to invest in the project, the company would be providing invoices directly to the county to be paid from those ARP funds.

Hensen pointed out 66 miles of make-ready that the company has accomplished in the past two years that is servicing areas on the northeast corner and eastern edge of the county. He explained that this work was completed around REC’s mission to provide electricity through the rural areas of the county.

“We weren’t as focused as we would be if the plan moved forward to speed it up,” Hensen said.

The investment from the ARP funds would speed up the process as grants and other sources of funding come available and are paid from the state through its broadband initiatives as well as these companies budgeting the costs of the buildout.

Deaton explained that they have already brought broadband to about 200 homes and they have grants paying out over the next six years to continue the deployment. He said through the grants and their own investments, they plan to add 5,000 customers.

Great economies that come with that kind of expansion,” Deaton said about adding 400 miles of fiber. “And knowing there is a working partnership not only with the REC but with the county, would make things go really, really well.”

Deaton referenced a 2019 Purdue study regarding broadband service that estimated for every dollar spent on the service, there is a $4 return on that investment in the local area.

Council president Mike Kluesner stated Spencer County had invested about $5 million to incentivize a similar buildout of fiber in the county. “It is a great deal of money,” he said about the Dubois County project. “But I don’t really know of any other way to expedite this.”

Connectivity is important for education as demonstrated by Covid-19 but also for economic and residential growth. “There are so many things,” Kluesner said about what would be impacted while acknowledging the potential decision to fund the project would use half ARP.

Deaton pointed out that the grants they have received are to help them get service Crawford, Lawrence, and Martin counties. But the ARP money and partnership with REC would prioritize the Dubois County project.

Orange County Fiber does not require customers to pay any connection fees, according to Deaton.

“It is a great opportunity and a great area to build to,” He said about Dubois County.

“Timeline is on you guys,” Hensen added.

According to Councilwoman Charmian Klem, the number one question she receives is about bringing broadband to the rural areas of the county.

And the council and commissioners want to hear from the public on this potential project. They can be contacted through the county’s website here for the commissioners and here for the council.

According to Commissioner Chad Blessinger, the ARP money could also be used to support the creation of the wastewater district — a project that comes with an “astronomical” price tag, he said — and this project.

Blessinger pointed out the county is working on an application for the new HELP program (Hoosiers Enduring Legacy Plan) through the Office of Community and Rural Affairs. If chosen to take part in the program, the county would invest $2.5 million in ARP funds as matching funds for that program. With the potential $4.35 million going to broadband deployment, that accounts for a large portion of the ARP funds.

Blessinger said it comes down to what projects the commissioners prioritize.

“This is about $800 a home,” he said about the county investment in the broadband project. “But that also prepares us for every home in the future that will be developed anywhere in the community.”

That is what these ARP funds are for, he added.