Columbia Commission begins setting broadband fees

Network will open soon to customers

Customers soon will be able to access Columbia County’s new broadband network after commission members began setting up fees.

Commissioners unanimously approved first reading of the fee schedule during their first meeting of the year Tuesday, with final approval expected at their next meeting Jan. 15.

“Once the rates are officially established, companies will be able to sign up immediately,” said Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson.

The fees for leasing access to the recently completed, 220-mile, $18 million network of fiber optic cable and wireless communication towers was devised by Jacobs and Magellan Advisors, the firm hired to recommend appropriate rates, Johnson said.

“These are market rates,” he said. “We’re not trying to undercut anybody. We worked really hard to try to make sure we were in the middle of the road as far as rates were concerned.”

With a network activation charge of at least $1,500 and monthly access ranging from $500 to $15,000, the utility won’t be aimed at individual home Internet access, Johnson added. “We’re not competing with the AT&Ts of the world for retail customers.”

Instead, he suggested, a company such as Comcast could expand its territory by renting space on the county’s network rather than laying its own lines.

In addition to commercial customers, the network will be available to “strategic partners” such as governments and medical facilities that were part of the original proposal for the $13.5 million federal grant that paid for most of the utility, Johnson said.

That includes the school board, which he said could save “a tremendous amount of money” by using the network to link county campuses.

Much of the funding for school access comes from the federal E-Rate program, which entitles educational facilities to lower-cost technology access and provides federal grants to pay for it with money from assessments on communications providers.

County officials already have opened preliminary discussions with school officials and filed to be eligible to receive E-Rate funding, Johnson said.

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