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Board of County Commissioners miss broadband deadlines

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(Note, this discussion is focused on the proposed broadband towers project that has been actively ongoing for the past five years. There is a separate proposed project for an additional fiber-optic line to be brought into the Valley that is in the discussion phase.)

On January 31, the Custer Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted unanimously to scrap going ahead with an application due that same day to the US Economic Development Administration (EDA) for a $1 million grant to fund six towers to provide high-speed broadband service to the county. The grant would have served as matching funds required by a previous DOLA grant for the six towers. The six towers were a part of the broadband access and development plan originally recommended for the area by the South-Central Council of Governments (COG) in 2015. The Custer County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) has been working for seven years to provide free technical consultation to the county on how to develop the broadband tower project, from site selection to engineering to grant-writing. All that effort is now effectively wasted, and in a statement released last week, the EDC announced that it would cease its broadband consultation efforts with the county.

Even with a vote for approval, funding for the tower project might possibly have been stymied anyway, for the county’s dilatoriness in dealing with it over the years resulted in the deadline for spending the DOLA funds expiring on December 31, 2021. DOLA had already extended the use deadline for the $1 million grant once. Since granting agencies tend not to look favorably on grantees that miss deadlines, ask for extensions, and then miss those extension deadlines, the EDA grant application was going to be a challenge, as Leslie Mastroainni acknowledged in a presentation to the BOCC. Mastroainni, a grant writer with the South Central Economic Development District, (SCEDD) summed up the matter – calling it “a twisty turny thing.” She explained further, “The [EDA grant application] extension was to January 31. It was originally due January 14. The county was going to provide the matching funds [for the broadband project] with a DOLA grant previously received. All thought those funds were available through end of March. We discovered that the funds expired December 31. After conversations with DOLA and EDA, we can submit the EDA application this afternoon with the match being in kind of in a limbo state. DOLA is letting us resubmit the grant application. If we submit to EDA this afternoon we will make them aware that the match is still in limbo but will be applying for it [from DOLA] before March 1. If we go ahead with the application today, we have every intention of applying for DOLA money. We would need a letter from the BOCC to that effect. We are ready to move forward with that option.”

Mastroainni mentioned that if the county waited till later to go ahead with an EDA grant application, the amount of funding from EDA would be reduced – from 80% of the project cost to 50%. Nevertheless, she said, another option would be to wait until later, and apply for EDA and DOLA funds at the same time.

Despite her advocacy for going ahead, however, and expressed convictions that the BOCC could, in fact, go ahead with the project, the BOCC voted unanimously to reject going ahead with the funding requests, claiming that the property owners who had signed a letter of intent to allow the towers to be built on their lands would still need to apply for Special Use Permits and review by the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA), and that there would not be time for that to be scheduled before the March 1 deadline.

A representative of the Custer County Economic Development Corp. refuted the claim that those processes were necessary since the county itself would be owning the towers.

Some in the community have commented that there is no need for expanded broadband coverage in the mountains because of the new Starlink Satellite network that is being launched by Space X. In addition, critics of the local broadband tower project also claim that government-subsidized internet is a waste of taxpayer money and that a free-market business like Starlink is preferable. However, this statement is incorrect as Starlink and parent company Space X receive tens of billions of dollars in direct government subsidies and billions more in government contracts.

In addition, the Starlink technology is not widely available yet and is still an experimental network of low-orbit, low-latency ground, and satellite stations. At the start of February, 40 of 49 newly launched satellites were damaged and crashed to earth after a geomagnetic storm.

In needs to be noted that Starlink is an experimental technology at the moment in a beta-phase of testing. The concept of a low-orbit internet network is not new. In 1998, Iridium, a Motorola-backed company, completed the launch of 66 satellites for phone and data communications. However, the price of the phone and data subscriptions proved too costly except for large corporations like media outlets and military users. One year after service started the company was forced to file for bankruptcy. At the time, it was one of the largest bankruptcy’s in United States history. The company emerged from bankruptcies and has continued service for large companies and for geo-targeting but never realized the goal of global telephone calls and internet service.

At the same time that Iridium was forming another low-earth orbit company, Globalstar backed by Loral and Qualcomm, launched and it placed 52 satellites in 2000. Due to price, the company also filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

These two examples highlight the fact that Starlink has an uncertain future, and that banking on it locally to cover Custer County at such an early phase leaves huge amounts of uncertainty for future coverage. While the previous two companies launched fewer than 77 satellites, Starlink had already launched 1,900 by January 2022, and plans on having a total of more 4,408 satellites completed in the first phase, with 30,000 more planned for the future (Note, there are other existing satellite companies such as HughesNet that offer satellite services that work well in Custer County. However, these services cannot provide low-latency services for phone calls or Zoom meetings).

Other local critics of the broadband have cited maintenance costs to the county being too high, but no such maintenance estimates have been provided during the past seven years by Custer County.

The Tribune will continue to investigate this story as more details about the sudden termination of the project are uncovered.

A press release from the BOCC was received by the Tribune at noon on Tuesday and is published on page four of this edition.

– Elliot Jackson & Jordan Hedberg

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