(This is the final installment of our series: The Last Mile: While Rural Broadband is So Difficult and How Paulding County is Leading the Way in Providing Access)

PAULDING – When the state of Ohio opened applications for its Ohio Residential Broadband Expansion Grant, there were no local internet service providers who bothered applying for Paulding County. Few saw the point, as Paulding County failed to meet criteria such as being an economically distressed county. Nor did it have large numbers without access to broadband.

“It was clear to us and some other local providers that it didn’t fit,” said Eric Roughton, general manager of Arthur Mutual Telephone Company. “There was already good enough broadband coverage, using FCC maps that we reference. Other people didn’t see it that way.”

The “other people” Roughton is referring to is Spectrum, who applied for a grant on behalf of the county. In its application, the company applied for a $10.629 million dollar grant to serve 2,517 households including according to their application, 1,734 who were unserved. The amount requested was half of the total cost estimate for the project of $20.697 million.

Spectrum’s application for Paulding County reflected a broader strategy the company employed statewide, in which it submitted applications totaling more than $671 million dollars for the first round of funding, promising to connect 106,000 locations in the state. The company admitted in its own applications that some counties were wishful thinking, writing, “we realize this exceeds the total available in the program, but we are committed to building more broadband in the state and look forward to participating in future rounds.

In a statement to The Paulding Progress, Spectrum cited their “strong track record in rural expansion through public-private partnerships like the Rural Development Opportunity Fund [which provided rural subsidies for broadband infrastructure construction] and state broadband grants, as well as 100% company-funded expansions.”

According to Roughton, Arthur Mutual challenged over 1,000 addresses Spectrum claimed didn’t have service. “They were applying for grant money, and Arthur already had fiber in front of those houses. And they [the state of Ohio] accepted our challenge.”

BroadbandOhio did not end up awarding any money to Spectrum’s application for Paulding County.

That wasn’t about to stop Paulding County from providing access to those lacking last-mile service though, and it was going to use stimulus dollars from the American Recovery Plan Act to do so.

“You had to spend it right and you had to apply for it, there were very few of these funds that had been spent,” said Paulding County Commissioner Mike Weible, who took the county’s lead on broadband expansion soon after taking office.

First, he had to overcome resistance from townships. “On a couple of occasions, I got, “well, you know, we’ve been asked before to send our ARPA funds into the county. We’re not doing that, because we won’t ever see it back.”

Weible returned to the local internet service providers (ISPs) and they agreed it would be possible to do builds by township or villages. For every ARPA dollar the township or village was willing to spend on broadband expansion, the county would match with its ARPA funds.

Currently, Auglaize, Brown, Carryall, Crane, Jackson, Paulding and Washington Townships took the county up on its offer, as well as the village of Latty. Bids have been awarded for each.

To date, $1.1 million of ARPA funds the county, townships and villages have received are committed to or have been spent on broadband expansion. When added to what local ISPs are spending on construction, $2.8 million of local public-private sector investments have been made. In practical terms, over one thousand homes that lacked access will gain it when the builds are completed. This represents nearly twelve percent of the total households in the county.

The Paulding Progress divided both the total cost and the grant amount requested by the number of households served to determine the cost per household served for both the rejected Spectrum proposal and the county projects. We discovered that the county’s approach offers substantial savings in both the total cost and the amount of tax dollars required.

Spectrum’s per-household served total cost would have been $8,222.96, while the county’s per-household served total cost is $2,790.10. The tax dollars required for subsidizing Spectrum’s build would amount to $4,222.96 per household served, while the tax dollars (ARPA funds) subsidizing the county builds are $1,124.70 per household served. The per-household savings amount to $5,432.86 in total costs and $3,098.26 in taxpayer subsidies per household served by Paulding County’s strategy.

While we realize Spectrum’s application would have served over 1,500 more homes, if we assume Paulding’s per-household mean costs could be extrapolated to serving the same amount as Spectrum’s proposal, matching the number of homes served would increase the county’s estimated cost to $7.02 million and its taxpayer contribution to $2.83 million.

Therefore, if the mean per-household construction rates bid were used to expand coverage to the levels Spectrum offered, it could do so at a savings of $13.58 million in total costs and savings to taxpayers of $7.8 million if the county were able to serve the same amount of households Spectrum proposed, using the mean costs the county projects are currently at.

To be fair, we don’t know exactly which homes Spectrum planned on serving that the county isn’t. These homes could be in parts of the county that require significantly higher construction costs than residences the county is focusing on. Even so, our analysis seems to show that by partnering with townships and local ISPs, there are real, tangible economic benefits to the county in addressing the broadband issue using its current strategy.

One way that Sherwood Mutual Telephone Association (SMTA), one of the local ISPs contracted with, is by doing the construction themselves. “Everything is in-house, so I’m not paying someone to do it. I have control over what my costs are,” said Rick Rostorfer, SMTA general manager.

Once completed, the county will not own any of the infrastructure. According to Weible, “The county is not getting into this utility. What are goal is, is the same goal of the ISPs: Get as many homes as we can.”

For that reason, Weible cautioned that not every home in the township can be served by the build, and ultimately it is up to the ISPs to determine what is profitable. He added, “For them, we are a one-time shot. Financially, when we walk away from it, this build has to work for them.”

“I can’t create competition. Our idea is expanding availability. We want to go where there isn’t any. We want to expand broadband access not competition to access.”

As it currently stands, a thousand homes who lacked access to high-speed broadband in Paulding County will soon have it because of the vision of the county commissioners, townships trustees and a village council and local ISPs.

(Adam Papin is the editor of The Paulding Progress. He can be reached at progress@progressnewspaper.org)