PERE MARQUETTE TOWNSHIP — Two firms pitched their ideas of having a county-wide broadband during a work session of the Mason County Board of Commissioners Tuesday night in the conference room of the Mason County Airport.

The presentations and the question-and-answer periods of each of the firms lasted more than 2 1/2 hours. Discussions continued where the meeting more than 3 hours long.

Mason County Administrator Fabian Knizacky said the work session was to see if the county built the infrastructure while having an operator to work the system.

Mike Reen of Aspen Smart Networks discussed his firm’s ideas to bring broadband to the county. He emphasized how the grants coming through the state will be geared toward private-public partnerships.

Reen said his firm will be able to go from the design and engineering stage through construction and then management.

“We can now take it from purchase order and deliver an entire network,” Reen said.

Reen recognized the work the county has already worked on, including working with Aspen on a feasibility study. He also compared how Mason County is situated similarly to Branch County, another municipality researching and working on broadband, according to Reen.

“You’re away ahead of (other municipalities) because of what you’ve done,” he said.

And he encouraged the county, when it does its request for proposal, to include areas served well including mentioning Spectrum serving the City of Ludington and nearby areas.

“The beauty of having another competitor is it always brings the price down or it levels it off,” Reen said.

Later, he said that based on likely grant requirements, grant funds will have to go to underserved and unserved areas while other funds to cover areas other served.

Reen said design could start right away and construction could start quickly right after. However, there are supply chain issues, including those issues taking place before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A project this size would be 2 1/2 to 3 years of construction,” Reen said. “You could see movement within weeks of design.”

With costs, though, many items are in short supply. Reen said fiber alone is up 30% in the past year. The firm did not update the costs.

“It would not be unreasonable to be $65 to $70 million, but don’t hold me to it,” he said. “That’s the construction and installation.”

Brian Snider, CEO of Birmingham, Alabama-based Lit Communities, and David Corrado, CEO of Medina County Fiber Network, also had a presentation before the county board. Medina County has a population of more than 182,000 people and is situated southwest of Cleveland.

Lit Communities works through something that is an open access network where a network is built out, internet service providers then lease out the networks from the municipalities that own the network.

No matter what, if consumers receive good service, they’ll stay.

“If they get good fiber connectivity at a decent price, they’re not going to switch providers,” Snider said.

Snider said the networks his firm built are those where there are not only jobs from the construction of the networks, but also the service, maintenance and more are done locally, too.

“To me, they should all be done locally,” he said.

Corrado said his county was seeing several businesses grow and then move out.

“One of the big keys was to bring choice in Medina County. Most of the carriers jumped on,” he said.

Corrado said the network is an arm of the Medina County Economic Development Corporation. He encouraged the county board to allow for multiple companies to provide service.

“An open network is much needed. Large companies use more than one carrier,” Corrado said, adding some businesses have redundancies in that area.

Snider said, later, though that more it takes roughly more than 25,000 connected places to bring in multiple internet service providers. Corrado said what made his network open was they needed to open it outside the county because of the businesses that use it.

He said, too, that the build-out would take time because many financial considerations.

“It could take us three years if every community rallies around us,” he said.

Snider said his firm has worked with different populations. They’re working with Mansfield, Louisiana, where he said there are 1,300 homes. The latest census gave the municipality a population of 4,652. None of the counties had a population similar to Mason County’s total of 29,164.

Nearing the conclusion of the discussion, board members discussed how to move forward at the behest of Knizacky and County Board Chair Janet Andersen as far as a timeline going forward.

Knizacky said the way forward was to build the network and have another entity manage it. He said the county should pursue a voted millage and any grants received reduces the millage. The county should not try to build a network based solely on user fees.

“The only way to lower the financial risk on the county for the cost of construction (is a voted millage),” Knizacky said. “Without a voted millage, I think you’d be crazy to consider this project.”

The amount of a bond would be dependent upon the yet undetermined construction costs and the interest rates. Knizacky said the structure of financing for broadband could be similar to how the Mason County Jail renovations were financed where a voted millage, grants and funding from the county were all at work.

The board reviewed sample job descriptions for the part-time senior citizen position. Knizacky sought input from board members, but to be given at a later time in light of the meeting lasting more than three hours at that point.

The Managing Editor for the Ludington Daily News since June 2018 and on the staff since Oct. 2011, taking over for legendary Lloyd Wallace. Previously with The Chippewa Herald in Chippewa Falls, Wis., and the Tuscola County Advertiser in Caro.

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