Federal committee questions Lake County broadband projectLake County’s broadband project has become the object of a federal inquiry into the Broadband Initiatives Program.
By: LaReesa Sandretsky, Lake County News Chronicle
Lake County’s broadband project has become the object of a federal inquiry into the Broadband Initiatives Program.
The project, one of 320 broadband ventures funded as part of the Recovery Act of 2009, is being singled out by Republican members of the U. S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
The correspondence, signed by six Republican representatives from the Committee and dated March 13, was sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service, the agency that granted Lake County a $66.4 million grant/loan combination for its broadband network. The letter questions RUS’s review process for awarding the funds, and raises two main questions about the Lake County project.
“We are concerned with suggestions that the BIP program may have been used to overbuild existing systems. Materials reviewed by Committee staff also raise questions as to whether RUS adequately considered the financial viability of the Lake County project,” the letter states.
The questions are familiar—they echo the 26-page complaint Mediacom sent to the USDA Inspector General in March 2011. That complaint alleged that the project isn’t viable and that the County undertook the project without required voter approval. In the March 11, 2011 issue of the News-Chronicle, a Mediacom representative said that the County broadband was “a 100 percent overbuild” of Mediacom’s network.
Matt Huddleston, county administrator, said that Mediacom’s complaints have since been thrown out by the Inspector General. As for the new inquiry from the Committee, Huddleston said they will provide any help they can, but so far they haven’t been contacted directly by either RUS or the Committee.
“If there are any questions or any information that is needed, we’ll be here to provide that,” Huddleston said Monday, and in the meantime, the broadband project will continue.
Project moves forward with increasing public interest
The public broadband meetings held in early 2011 were attended by about 20 people. There seems to have been an uptick in public interest since then, as over 50 people attended each of three recent community meetings held by Lake Connections, the branded name under which the County is managing the project.
Residents of southern Lake and St. Louis counties filled town halls in Duluth Township, Silver Creek Township and Knife River on March 5, 7 and 14, to hear Lake Connections Project Manager, Jeff Roiland, provide a construction progress report.
The project will be completed in three phases. Currently, phase one (Two Harbors and Silver Bay) is 25 percent complete and phase two will begin later in April. Once the administration building is completed in Two Harbors (estimated completion is July), Huddleston said the County could start hooking some customers up to the network.
Roiland said that judging by the near standing-room-only attendance and questions asked, interest is high in the network. Community information meetings for northern Lake County and St. Louis communities will be announced this spring, Roiland said.
Blandin Broadband Community meeting well-attended
Lake County has been named by Blandin Foundation as a broadband community, which entails working with Blandin to define a vision and plan of action to use broadband resourcefully in the community.
A meeting was held on March 14 to brainstorm ideas and over 50 people attended, according to Huddleston.
“I was impressed with the number of people from the community that showed up. They had some great ideas,” Huddleston said.
A follow-up meeting will be held April 2 to whittle down the proposed ideas and define a direction. Then, the group will apply for a grant of up to $75,000 to help carry out their final plan, with a match from the County of 25 to 50 percent.