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‘Big Gig Challenge’ Seeks to Bolster Muni Fiber Projects in Northeast Ohio

If cities don’t take charge of their own fate for high-speed Internet, they could be waiting years to get fiber infrastructure in their community.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the Cleveland-based OneCommunity is focused on expanding high-speed broadband access and adoption in Northeast Ohio. The nonprofit organization has developed a 2,500-mile network that spans 24 counties, and provides hospitals, schools, government, public safety departments and businesses with high-speed Internet and data center services.

To bolster municipal fiber development in the region, OneCommunity recently announced its Big Gig Challenge, which will provide matching grants of up to 25 percent of the total project costs up to $2 million for municipally led, community-wide fiber construction projects in Northeast Ohio. The primary goal is to spur creative and collaborative approaches to building community fiber networks.

Municipalities in the following counties are eligible: Ashland, Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Erie, Geauga, Huron, Lake, Lorain, Mahoning, Medina, Ottawa, Portage, Richland, Sandusky, Stark, Summit, Trumbull and Wayne.

In a recent interview, Government Technology asked Brett Lindsey, OneCommunity’s chief operating officer, and Liz Forester, its economic development manager, about the new grant program. 
GT: Has OneCommunity’s efforts so far been mostly in Cleveland or spread out across this larger geographic area of Northeast Ohio?
Lindsey:  It is across the entire area. We have received two large grants in the last four years. The first was from the FCC rural health-care pilot program to construct about 350 miles of plant in rural areas of Northeast Ohio. The second was a broadband stimulus grant, which allowed us to build approximately 1,000 miles of network across the 24 counties. 
GT: Why did OneCommunity decide to provide grants to municipalities for their fiber projects?
Lindsey:  Part of the challenge we have is trying to get our fiber network deeper into communities to drive economic development. We can sit and have conversations with city, county and port authority executives for years, and not have a significant driver to get them to act. The idea was to come up with a plan that provides an incentive for people to get going on an idea. We have an opportunity to drive fiber expansion deeper into communities that we traverse through with our middle-mile network. We thought that if we put some skin in the game, it would be the impetus to get people to act. 
GT: Are many of these cities in areas that have been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs and are struggling to develop new economic development strategies?
Forester:  Some definitely are. Certain cities have been hit harder than others — in the Youngstown area and some areas surrounding Cleveland, but others of these are also just very rural. So traditionally it is more difficult for them to attract larger businesses, and having fiber assets in place is one key component to differentiate themselves from other areas. 
GT: So would these municipalities connect the fiber infrastructure they build to the OneCommunity network?
Lindsey: It could be. The truth is we don’t know yet. We just had our first session with six or seven cities that came in to do fact-finding missions. Ideas ranged from a specific corridor to certain parcels of land they are trying to attract business tenants to. The goal would be to get them connected back to our network if possible so they can take advantage of it. 
GT: When you talk to people in these cities, can you show them some examples where the investment in fiber is paying off in economic development terms?
Lindsey: One example is Mayfield Village, Ohio, which invested money into building fiber, and we participated in that build with them. They benefit because that attracts new business and helps bring more tax dollars into their community. We benefit because we are a service provider and pick up some more infrastructure for us to provide service to customers. And we think that is the primary driver for all these communities. They are being told by site acquisition people looking for a location to move a business that having fiber is no longer a nice-to-have, it is a must-have. So they are starting to realize that if they don’t have that infrastructure, they are going to miss out on bringing that business to their community. 
GT: Do some communities have a strong interest in creating these municipal fiber projects but a lack of funding?
Lindsey: The funding is going to be a challenge, so I think the match we are trying to provide should help them get started. But we are not going to put our money in until there is significant buy-in from the community. If you don’t have significant leadership from the political side, it is tough to get these initiatives off the ground. We do have some community development corporations that are interested. We are encouraging them to go after anchor institutions — hospitals and school districts — anybody that would benefit from having fiber, to get them involved in fundraising efforts. 
GT: Do you ever hear skeptical responses from people who ask, "Why not leave this to the private sector?"
Lindsey: Not often, but yesterday one city official we were meeting with said exactly that. "Why do we need to do this? Won’t Time-Warner and AT&T eventually come in?" We see those companies as distracted with a lot of other things going on right now, whether it is Time-Warner with Comcast or AT&T with DirecTV. Plus, a lot of these areas are not key urban area focuses where those vendors are going hard from an investment perspective. We tell city officials: You are really going to have to take charge of your own fate. If you don’t do that, you could be waiting for years — or never — to get fiber infrastructure of any significant level brought into your community.