County approves $1.95M for broadband project

Approval represents county’s total allocation of ARPA funds to broadband expansion

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

FORT MADISON – Lee County Supervisors approved an application for $1.95 million in county funds to build a fiber optics backbone in Lee County from Keokuk to Hwy. 16 and east to Hwy. 61.

At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the board, which was moved from Monday due to the Labor Day holiday, the board approved, 5-0, to allocate the funds from the county’s share of the American Rescue Plan Act funds it has already received.

The county has $3.25 million in an interest bearing account from a payment received in May this year. They are expecting another $3.25 million in May 2022.

The map and legend show the proposed new fiber optics network that is being planned for Lee County. Image courtesy of Southeast Iowa Regional & Economic Port Authority.

Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission Director Mike Norris, serving as an administrator for the Southeast Iowa Regional and Economic Port Authority (SIREPA) spoke to the board about the specifics of the funding.

Norris said the funds will be used as matching funds for a state grant out of the State Office of the Chief Information Officer to help offset the costs of building the $5.5 million fiber optic “backbone” structure in Lee County.

Danville Mutual Telephone Co. is the company applying for the grant through the OCIO, but SIREPA is applying for the matching funds from the county. SIREPA would then provide the funding as part of the grant qualifications, if the project is approved.

In return SIREPA would own the fiber optics main line and lease it back to Danville Telecom for 10 years. SIREPA could then use those funds for future economic development projects. The lease payments to SIREPA would amount to 50% of the depreciated value of the main fiber optics line over the 10 year period. Danville Telecom would retain ownership of all the residential service lines. SIREPA would just own the main line.

The fiber infrastructure would be, as Norris called it, “future proof” because the speed of the service would be dependent on the equipment at the ends of the line and could be upgraded without rerunning and replacing the line. The new project would bring service to about 120 rural homes in Lee County.

The state is targeting Tier 1 areas, which are areas with service less than 25 mbps download speeds and 3 mbps upload. Norris said current mapping is not correct on those services in Lee County, and shows more coverage that is actually provided.

Supervisor Garry Seyb said the project is just what the county was looking for in terms of the ARPA funding allocation.

“This sets up future expansion of service in Lee County,” Seyb said. “Without this, we would struggle to get that.”

Norris said the timeline for the work is still fluid, but he said if all goes according to plan, work could begin in the next 15 to 18 months and then service would be available about 15 months after that.

“These are really terrible ranges I’m giving you, it’s really kind of a spit in the wind, but I would say between two and two and a half years is when we would have megabips flowing,” Norris said.

If Danville Telecom’s project isn’t approved for funding, which Norris said could come any day now, then he would come back to the board with the best option moving forward.

Danville Telecom’s request from the OCIO is $3.459 million. The $1.95 million request from SIREPA on behalf of the project would make up the rest of the project funding. Norris said there are some engineering costs that aren’t done in Lee County, but the rest of the money would go toward construction and administration costs locally.

“This whole project will be constructed in Lee County. Just to be super clear, the engineer that designed it is not in Lee County, but all the digging and the people doing the work will be right here in Lee County,” Norris said.

The county had allocated 30% of the APRA funds to broadband expansion. This approval would constitute that full allocation from the county’s expected $6.5 million in ARPA funds.

However, Seyb said other companies interested in broadband projects in Lee County should submit applications for funding because as of yet the Danville Telecom project hasn’t been approved. He also said other areas of allocation, such as child care, tourism, county projects etc. could come up short of the funding total, which would allow those extra funds to be used elsewhere.

A committee overseeing the fund allocations recommended Tuesday eliminating non-profits from the previous allocation formula under guidance from the Iowa State Association of Counties. They had allocated 5% of the ARPA Funds to non-profit requests, but those funds were re-allocated to pay for a fund administrator at 3%, while the other 2% was moved into the county projects allocation.

In other action the board:

• approved a request to replace two full time correctional officers.
• tabled a request to hire additional Lee County EMS staff.

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