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Fiber optic status to be discussed by county board

On Tuesday, Cook County Commissioners will hear the story behind the federal rejection of an application to partially fund fiber optic service in the county. The Fiber Optic Network Commission report will also offer suggestions to the board on what’s next and how to proceed.

Arrowhead Electric Cooperative CEO Don Stead plans to attend the county’s meeting to talk about
the cooperative’s interest in establishing a fiber optic broadband network locally. According to Stead, Arrowhead is poised to pursue funding as part of a second round of federal broadband stimulus grants. Previously, the cooperative had decided against taking the lead in building fiber optic infrastructure; however, Stead says that from a business point of view, their involvement “definitely looks brighter” now.

According to the county’s Information Systems Director Danna MacKenzie, the fiber optic commission continues “to track what is happening with North East Service Cooperative, Arrowhead Electric, Lake County, the incumbent providers, state broadband involvement, and the national broadband plan.” She added that the variables continue to change each day.

“Right now, after assessing all of our options, it looks like an Arrowhead application is the best chance for our community to move forward on this issue,” said MacKenzie. “The commission will recommend to the county board that they support Arrowhead's round 2 application,” she concluded. Details of that application will likely be a major part of Tuesday’s board discussion.

In a related story, District 6A Representative David Dill has introduced a bill in the House that would allow a county to construct a new telephone exchange if authorized by a majority of those
voting at a general or special election. The law has for years required a 65 percent majority to pass.

In addition, the bill defines a municipality “to include a county that, as of January 1, has passed a county sales tax for the purpose, among other things, of funding the construction of a countywide high-speed communications infrastructure network.” Sen. Tom Bakk has a companion bill introduced in the Senate.

Cook County Commissioner Bob Fenwick says he likes the idea of changing the vote to a simple majority of voters, and went to Saint Paul to testify in its favor. However, Fenwick says things changed when he arrived at the capital.

“There was an amendment offered at that time to change the bill from being a bill that would lower that threshold for the entire state to single out Cook County,” said Fenwick. “I can only surmise the legislators, Bakk and Dill, had discussions with citizens from the area who were advocating for Cook County in order to use telephone funds in our county. That’s my only conclusion, because that request was not made from the county itself,” he added.

While he supports local high-speed Internet, Fenwick sees the bill singling out Cook County to the exclusion of other counties as unacceptable and not in the spirit of the legislation.

“I would not favor that. That was not the issue I was asked to go down and testify on,” said Fenwick. He went on, adding, “And if Cook County is put into a position to bring this issue forward and jeopardize the other counties in the state, no, I don’t want any part of that.”

Fenwick has asked both Dill and Bakk to drop their bills. In the end the point may be moot. Dill’s version of the bill requires counties seeking to establish a municipal telecommunications exchange to have received federal funding from the Rural Utilities Service Broadband Initiatives. That is the very funding Cook County failed to secure just two weeks ago.