The ambitious plan to provide broadband internet service to all of Burke County is rife with hurdles.
First, the Federal Communications Commission implemented the Rural Development Opportunity Fund (RDOF), formulated to be the single largest distribution of Universal Service Fund dollars ever made available to communications service providers. The program is designed to provide more than $20 billion in funding over a 10-year period to support the construction of broadband networks in rural communities across the country. The FCC awarded RDOF funds through a descending clock, reverse auction process. Interested service providers could participate and bid for a percentage of the funds to serve one or more eligible areas.
Burke County did not benefit the way some might have hoped. Planters Telephone Cooperative lost out when another company bid substantially lower than their $20 million bid, according to County Manager Merv Waldrop.
Apparently the most qualified company did not win during the bidding process. The company who won the contract could not fulfill what they committed to do. Although RDOF is designed to facilitate broadband service, it is holding Burke County back. On paper it appears Burke County is going to be served by the company who won the bid and the county will be fully serviced within six years.
“There is no way they can do it,” Waldrop said. “They are trying to dissolve and get out of the contract with the FCC. In the meantime, it’s held against us with the State of Georgia broadband grant. They look at a map that shows Burke County is covered.”
Burke County attempted to apply for state grant money, anticipating a match of local funds.
“The state said ‘no, you are covered, you don’t need it,”’ Waldrop explained simply.
The county is continuing to work with the Burke County Board of Education to come up with a plan to begin supplying broadband to roughly 1,000 homes. However, if implemented, that could be held against the county as well. The state may see that as fewer people who need to be served by state funds, the second round of which can be applied for in October.
“If we get the funding, we could feasibly get broadband in four years,” Waldrop said. However, that was the schedule before supply issues came into play. “I don’t know what kind of material problems there might be. Since everyone is trying to do broadband at the same time, it might be more difficult.”
If the county doesn’t get approved for state funding in the next round, it will become a “high priority” to use SPLOST funds. The Board of Commissioners will decide that issue in November.
“The question is how much of the SPLOST program will be broadband,” Waldrop said. “SPLOST will generate about $40 million and it will take all of that if we don’t have state or other sources.”
The county has $4 million in American Rescue Funds to apply to the project, while the BOE has pledged another $3 million. That leaves a deficit of approximately $35 million to serve the entire county.
“How the SPLOST gets divided will be up to the commissioners and the city councils,” Waldrop said and pointed out that the BOC will begin tackling the issue in April so that the ballot is ready for early voting in October.