Summit County is planning to spend $75 million on a fiber internet project that will include building a 125-mile fiber optic ring to connect public safety entities in all 31 county communities and help expand internet access for residents and businesses.
There are also plans in the works to work with private internet service providers, who could spend up to $300 million on the project, making the total figure for a potential public-private project nearly $400 million.
The project, called the Summit County Public Safety Fiber and Communications Network, is one of the county’s largest capital projects ever and is being funded with a combination of county money and part of the $105.1 million it received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
According to the county’s capital improvement budget, the costs include:
• $35 million in ARPA money for the construction of the 125-mile fiber optic ring, which will be owned by Summit County and operated by the city of Fairlawn. The ring will connect all 31 communities and support the county’s emergency radio system, consolidated dispatch center and virtual court platforms. But the network will also provide additional capacity to provide internet service to all communities in the county.
“The ring will serve as the backbone for public safety communications and will provide the opportunity for internet service providers to build community networks connected to the ring and offer internet services to residents and businesses,” the county’s operating budget states.
• $20 million in county funds for the design and construction of a data center in Fairlawn to service the network.
• $20 million in ARPA money for community broadband investments to support broadband delivery in underserved areas of the county to enhance public education, health and criminal justice.
Brian Nelsen, chief of staff to Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro, said that, officially, 94% of Summit County is served with internet access. But he said that figure’s misleading given affordability and level-of-service issues, with only about 50% of Summit County actually using the internet.
Nelsen said the county is in discussions with two private internet service providers, but no firm decisions have been made.
“While we're looking at primarily government services and public safety, we also realize that with what would be called a middle mile network that connects all 31 communities, it creates the opportunity to partner with … private internet service providers who would then come in, bring private capital investment and invest in building out community-based networks and selling, providing internet services to residents and businesses off of those networks,” Nelsen said. “This is really a public-private partnership that we're envisioning, trying to leverage the best of what both government and public funds can bring with what the private sector can invest in and the services they could provide.”
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The county is using the ARPA money it received to fund projects it hasn’t been able to afford, including creating a stormwater district.
“The executive and I could not think of anything that checked more boxes in terms of impact to the community, from public safety, education, economic development and business growth and retention, smart technologies to be deployed,” Nelsen said of the fiber project. “It really checked more boxes than anything we could think of investing in, and it was one-time money, and we viewed it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something.”
Nelsen said it will take 2½ to three years to build the fiber ring, with construction of the data center in Fairlawn happening at the same time.
“The first residents that receive services (are) probably around three years out, and I could see this lasting, to get it all done, about seven years,” he said.
The county has invested millions of dollars in technology upgrades in recent years, including the ongoing construction of a regional dispatch center in Tallmadge and the Criminal Justice Virtual Courtroom Project.
“We're really trying to move our community, using the technology that's available to us now and hopefully in the foreseeable future, to move our community forward, to position us to be competitive and more efficient and effective,” Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro said. “We're excited about what the future may bring. It is a lot of hard work. But we feel very strongly that all of these things that we are able to put in at this moment in time, if you will, will really serve our communities well in future years.”
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Summit County fiber internet survey
The county is also in the midst of the “Job Hub & Opportunity Zones of Summit County High-Speed Fiber Feasibility Study,” a process that started before the county received its ARPA money. Officials decided to still move forward with the study to collect more data.
The process is looking at how to get high-speed fiber internet into the job hub and opportunity zone areas of the county, including business corridors. The county received a $125,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration and hired Akron-based engineering firm Environmental Design Group.
EDG is conducting a survey related to the study about residents’ existing needs, challenges, pricing and user experiences related to internet services. The survey is available at surveymonkey.com/r/6BFDFPB.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Summit County starting $75 million fiber internet project