BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – A project in the works to bring a new fiber optics network to Lee County could begin as early as this spring.
At a meeting Tuesday of the Southeast Iowa Regional and Economic Port Authority, the group got an update from Danville Telecom president Tim Fencl.
The project will take about two years to complete and could be functional in 2024, but engineering and consulting on the work is set to begin in late February or early March of next year.
The SIREPA discussed five agreements that will need to be agreed upon as part of the fiber optics project.
SIREPA will own the fiber optic backbone upon completion and will receive lease payments for 10 years that will amount to about $950,000 that SIREPA Administrator Mike Norris said will be allocated for additional rural broadband projects. Danville Telecom would assume ownership of the project after the 10 year lease is up.
He said the funds would be used for matching funds to leverage other grants to attract larger Internet projects through SIREPA.
“As the board has discussed, we will invest those lease payments back into broadband projects for Lee County,” Norris said.
The agreements will include a document outlining Lee County’s commitment of $1.9 million in America Rescue Plan Act funds as matching funds for the project. Those funds help trigger an additional $3.2 million grant from the Iowa Chief Information Officer to cover most of the remaining costs of the 57 miles of fiber optic cable that will run up a western Lee County track to Hwy. 16 and then east to Hwy. 61.
Norris said the port authority will probably be asking for the county’s ARPA contribution in March.
The county received $3.25 million from the U.S. Treasury as part of ARPA stimulus in May and is set to receive an additional $3.25 million in May of 2022.
Other funding allocations from the stimulus include county projects, child care assistance, housing assistance, and tourism projects.
SIREPA and Danville Telecom will have a funding agreement for the local match and outline the requirements of the work to qualify for the ARPA funding, which is essentially providing Tier 1 service to under-served areas along the network.
SIREPA and Danville Telecom will also have a lease agreement outlining the repayments to SIREPA.
Danville Telecom and the state will have a grant agreement for OCIO funds, and Danville Telecom will also have a vendor services agreement with Vantage Point for engineering on the project.
Vantage Point was also used by Lee County Economic Development Group for a mapping of Lee County’s broadband coverage.
The agreement with the county outlines the eligible use of ARPA funds to bring evidenced Internet service to residents who had less than 25 mbps download speed and 3 mbps upload speed. The county will likely make a lump some payment to SIREPA from to provide flexibility to the two groups to engage in the project.
Norris said the project may be funded in phases with the first being permitting and engineering, while phase two would be construction with a cost attached to each phase.
Fencl said permitting and engineering would commence in the spring.
“As soon as we have agreements in place between SIREPA and the county, SIREPA and Danville Telecom, at that point we would want to start getting right of way permission, permits, and sight-staking with boots on the grounds to find the path of least resistance,” Fencl told the board.
Fencl also referenced the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden last month. The $973 billion legislation included $550 billion in new infrastructure investment including, among others, rural broadband.
“They’re still working through at the FCC level what that’s going to look like. How that money will be dispersed to the states, and how states will disperse to individual counties. I do know there is an emphasis on partnerships like the ones we’ve created here. That money will be given greater scores, if you will, if there is a partnership like we’ve created here,” he said.
According the National Association of Counties, the infrastructure legislation earmarks $42.5 billion next year in grants to states for broadband deployment. It also adds $1 billion over five years in competitive grants for broadband deployment where counties can apply directly to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to improve “middle mile” infrastructure. Those are projects that connect local networks to high speed network service.