County board makes fiber its ownThere was an interesting moment of dichotomy last month as the Lake County Board of Commissioners wrangled with the National Public Broadband contract for the long-term management of its fiber-to-home project.
There was an interesting moment of dichotomy last month as the Lake County Board of Commissioners wrangled with the National Public Broadband contract for the long-term management of its fiber-to-home project.
NPB’s Gary Fields probably had an inkling but surely didn’t realize how suddenly his world was to be turned upside down after a county board meeting Feb. 1.
The interesting moments came as the board had a half-hour discussion about purchasing new pickups for the highway department. Here was the best of small government on display. There were plenty of expert questions from commissioners on the best options, the county getting bang for its buck.
The discussion would leave an observer wondering just why the heck a county board, experts on minutia about a sundry of items like a new pickup, would want to get involved in the complicated world of fiber technology. Stick to what you know, right?
More than an hour later, at 10:40, after talk about the pickups – and highway street lights, sewer line troubles, easements, audits, and beaver trapping – the elephant in the room and its representative, Fields, took center stage.
You had to wonder what Fields might have been thinking as the board went about its business. It wouldn’t be hard for him to think he was, indeed, the smartest guy in the room when it came to fiber-to-the-home projects. All this other stuff was peanuts, let’s get to the real meat for this county.
But that attitude was likely the demise of NPB. It did nothing to ease board members’ misgivings about CEO Tim Nulty’s past work in Vermont. Then the growing length of the contract and the negotiations that had to leave commissioners beleaguered and wondering how they would pull the fiber project off without neglecting things like that pickup purchase.
The status of NPB and how it would fit into the county project by remaining separate but under the board’s thumb remained convoluted until commissioners had enough. They knew they were wasting time by only getting more questions as the negotiations continued.
So Fields answered some questions for the board on where it stood on the contract Feb. 1. He drew his line, board members drew theirs. Fields further muddied the water by saying the county wouldn’t see its corporate reports when asked about “operational costs” the contract called for. “We don’t want to defend every expense we would have,” Fields said.
And there was the rub. NPB never really got it, that part about this being a public project open to all the scrutiny a purchase of a pickup gets.
That he said those words after dire warnings of dropping the contract made his position even worse.
Tom Clifford had said he would make a resolution at the next meeting to drop NPB as its fiber partner: “We have to move on.”
Rick Sve was fearful that dropping the contract and project was in the balance. “I’m on the fence.”
Rich Goutermont said a decision had to be made, and soon. “We’re not at the 11th hour. We’re at 11:55 time.”
The next week, NPB was dropped and a new beginning was forged for the project. It was a sudden firing. The resolution came up at 10:55 a.m. Feb. 8, after discussions about tax payments on public lands, garbage pickups in Fall Lake, an ATV trail, and restaurant inspections.
The next week, the board hired two men, not a company, to see the project at least through the framework phase. Things have settled out nicely, sort of.
There are other nattering nuisances to deal with that will surely frustrate the board as it tries to laser in on the project. There’s Mediacom and other local phone, cable, and internet providers worried about their market share. That’s to be expected, although it’s curious to hear them worry about taxpayer money at stake and a project doomed to fail all while complaining about unfair government-backed competition and losing customers. Which is it?
Complaints about competition coming from government projects have been going on since the early 2000s. Back when grants were first coming from the Department of Agriculture, the complaint was that the areas getting loans and grants weren’t rural enough. Not the same companies are saying areas are too rural. Worst of all, Mediacom and others have simply said people don’t want or need better, faster service in the hinterlands. Yes, you are allowed to be offended.
Partnerships are still possible. Cook County’s project is going through the local electric co-operative. And the lines the county builds will be open to any company who wants to lease them.
Private companies are using government dollars all over the country. Lake County is unique. It remains the only government body offering fiber service to all of its constituents.
The NPB contract drop was a start in a better direction, and proof that this board is willing to make some tough decisions and is in lockstep to get a successful project off and running. You can expect hiccups along the way. It is blazing unchartered territory.
It won’t be easy. At least not as fluid as the duties the county board is accustomed to, like that pickup buy. (It’s $105,930.09 from the 2011 equipment budget, by the way.)
And judging from the crowd at the informational hearing last week, it’s a territory thirsting for a better option on the information superhighway.
Advocating for the project should be based on expectations for results that will satisfy residents and not break the bank. Believe me, we’ll keep the scrutiny on and keep the board on task. It’s our job as the only newspaper of record in the county. And, judging from the lack of a single member of the public at recent board meetings, we know many of you depend on us for the latest on the project.
Mike is the editor of the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at 834-2141 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you have an opinion on the Lake County fiber project? Whether you are a company facing competition or a potential customer, we want to hear from you. Send your thoughts via email to chronicle@lcnewschronicle or, if need be, write them down and send them to our office.