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(Note that this discussion focuses on the proposed Broadband Towers project which has been actively underway for the past five years. There is a separate project proposed for an additional fiber optic line to be introduced into the valley which is in the discussion stage. )
On January 31, the Custer Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) voted unanimously to drop a request due the same day to the US Economic Development Administration (EDA) for a $1 million grant to fund six towers to to provide broadband broadband. service to the county. The grant would have served as matching funds required by a previous DOLA grant for all six rounds. The six towers were part of the broadband access and development plan originally recommended for the region by the Council of South Central Governments (COG) in 2015. The Custer County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) has been working for seven years to provide free technical consultation to the county on how to develop the broadband tower project, from site selection to engineering to grant writing. All of that effort is now effectively wasted, and in a statement released last week, EDC said it would cease its broadband consultation efforts with the county.
Even with a vote of approval, funding for the tower project might have been blocked anyway, as the county’s slowness to deal with it over the years resulted in the deadline for spending DOLA funds on December 31, 2021. DOLA had already extended the deadline for using the $1 million grant once. Since granting agencies tend not to look favorably on grantees who miss deadlines, request extensions, and then miss those extension deadlines, the EDA grant application was going to be a challenge, as Leslie Mastroainni admitted. in a presentation at the BOCC. Mastroainni, a South Central Economic Development District (SCEDD) grants writer summed up the case, calling it “a twisty, twisty thing.” She further explained: “The [EDA grant application] the extension was until January 31. It was originally due on January 14. The county would provide the matching funds [for the broadband project] with a previously received DOLA grant. All thought that these funds were available until the end of March. We discovered that the funds expired on December 31. After conversations with DOLA and EDA, we can submit the EDA request this afternoon, with the match somewhat in a state of limbo. DOLA allows us to resubmit the grant application. If we submit to the EDA this afternoon we will let them know the game is still in limbo but we will request it. [from DOLA] before March 1. If we go ahead with the request today, we fully intend to request DOLA money. We would need a letter from the BOCC to that effect. We are ready to move forward with this option.
Mastroainni mentioned that if the county waited until later to move forward with an EDA grant application, the amount of EDA funding would be reduced – from 80% of the project cost to 50%. Still, she said, another option would be to wait until later and apply for EDA and DOLA funds at the same time.
Despite his plea to go ahead, however, and his expressed beliefs that the BOCC could, in fact, go ahead with the project, the BOCC voted unanimously to reject further funding requests, claiming that landowners who had signed a letter of intent to allow the towers to be built on their land would still need to apply for special use permits and be reviewed by the Zoning Appeals Board (BZA), and that it there would be no time for this to be scheduled before the March 1 deadline.
A representative from the Custer County Economic Development Corp. refuted the claim that these processes were necessary since the county itself would own the towers.
Some community members have said there is no need to expand broadband coverage in the mountains due to the new Starlink satellite network being launched by Space X. In addition, critics of the local broadband tower project claim also that government subsidized internet is a waste of taxpayers money and that a free market company like Starlink is better. However, this statement is incorrect because Starlink and parent company Space X receive tens of billions of dollars in direct government grants and billions more in government contracts.
Additionally, Starlink technology is not yet widely available and remains an experimental network of low-latency low-orbit earth stations and satellites. In early February, 40 of the 49 newly launched satellites were damaged and crashed to earth after a geomagnetic storm.
It should be noted that Starlink is an experimental technology currently in beta testing. The concept of an Internet network in low orbit is not new. In 1998, Iridium, a company backed by Motorola, completed the launch of 66 satellites for voice and data communications. However, the price of telephone and data subscriptions proved to be too expensive except for large enterprises such as media and military users. A year into service, the company was forced to file for bankruptcy. At the time, it was one of the biggest bankruptcies in US history. The company emerged from bankruptcies and continued to serve large enterprises and geo-targeting, but never achieved the goal of global phone calls and internet service.
At the same time Iridium was forming another company in low earth orbit, Globalstar backed by Loral and Qualcomm, was launched and placed 52 satellites in 2000. Due to the price, the company also filed for bankruptcy in 2002.
Both of these examples highlight the fact that Starlink has an uncertain future, and that betting on it locally to cover Custer County at such an early stage leaves huge uncertainties for future coverage. While the previous two companies have launched fewer than 77 satellites, Starlink had already launched 1,900 as of January 2022 and expects to have a total of more than 4,408 satellites completed in the first phase, with another 30,000 planned for the future (Note, there are other satellite companies such as HughesNet that offer satellite services that work well in Custer County. However, these services cannot provide low latency services for phone calls or meetings Zoom).
Other local broadband critics have cited maintenance costs that are too high for the county, but no such maintenance estimate has been provided in the past seven years by Custer County.
The Tribune will continue to investigate this story as further details of the project’s sudden halt are uncovered.
A press release from the BOCC was received by the Tribune on Tuesday noon and is published on page four of this edition.
–Elliot Jackson and Jordan Hedberg