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Frank Rigdon of ETC shows the company’s service area. PHOTOS BY WAYNE TIDWELL

Ellijay Telephone Company presents high-speed internet plan for Big Canoe

Vote could take place in July

By Wayne Tidwell, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Big Canoe residents were updated on the status of the high-speed internet project at the May 13 Community Coffee. The coffee lasted more than an hour and a half and covered the Internet Task Force’s, work on the project for nearly two years.

“When I reflect on this project there are many significant milestones that have been achieved but two pivotal points stand out in my mind,” Task Force Chairman Paul Goldstein said. “The discovery and selection of Civitium as our consulting subject matter experts and the selection of Ellijay Telephone Company (ETC) as our strategic partner.”

Jason Smith, vice president of business development and Frankie Rigdon, vice president of operations introduced ETC to the audience and explained ETC’s technology and service philosophy.

ETC was founded in 1903 and purchased in 1958 by the Harrison family of North Georgia. It was voted by Corporate America in 2015 as the best diversified communications company in Georgia. Their products and services include Internet, phone, digital cable, home automation and security, and lifestyle management, all of which could be delivered over the proposed Big Canoe fiber network. Their service area includes Polk County in Tennessee south to Cherokee County, Georgia.

Questions from the floor were numerous and covered a spectrum of issues from financing of the project to technology to the status of the project.

Existing Internet providers would remain after the Big Canoe system is completed and homeowners would have a choice of service providers according to Smith.

Big Canoe General Manager John Thompson told the group that a referendum on the proposed plan to build a fiber optics network in Big Canoe could happen in July.

“In our [POA] working board meeting this week our chairman gave the update and requested the board to approve or ratify our revenue share negotiations with ETC and our construction not-to-exceed bid from the build provider AEG,” Thompson said.

“That is on the board’s plate for consideration at next week’s meeting. If everything falls in line they could approve it this month or next month and we could have a referendum in July.”

Comm Coffee 3

An ETC mock-up shows how Big Canoe homes would be connected to the high-speed
fiber network.

Customers would come online as the network is being built,” Smith said. “All of the technology that we would be providing is in place at our central office.”

The decision of whether part-time residents could put their services “on hold” and be given a lower price during non use has not been decided according to Smith. Residents will be able to keep their current phone numbers and ETC has the license to provide services to residents in both Dawson and Pickens counties.

Fiber network is best technology for Big Canoe

Smith said ETC could not justify the investment in the infrastructure over a long enough payback period [10 years] to permit highly competitive service prices and Big Canoe was in a unique position to finance it through revenue sharing and assessments. He said that a fiber optic network was the right technology for Big Canoe and that from everything that they could see, especially in rural markets, there is no replacement technology for fiber and a fiber network would meet Big Canoe needs for the foreseeable future.

“I haven’t found any documentation that says wireless in a rural market, in terrain such as Big Canoe’s that is going to be a viable option in the near future for high speed data.”

He said the fiber system is not limited to 1 Gig but can be easily configured for much faster speeds. Four speed options available when the network is completed will include 100, 250 and 500 Mb/s and 1 Gig, with associated pricing available for Big Canoe subscribers.

Installation requirements and costs in the home will vary from home to home depending on age and original wiring, according to Smith. AEG (Atlantic Engineering Group) will provide the fiber drop to each home and ETC will do the in-home installation. ETC looked at seven homes in Big Canoe to determine possible in-home installation variations.

Micro trenches will be made in the road asphalt throughout Big Canoe into which conduit with extra spaces for future growth will be installed, according to Smith. It will be covered with an aggregate and topped with asphalt. An Optical Network Transmitter box (ONT) will be installed at each subscriber’s home and a “drop” will connect the home to the fiber network and will have wiring for internet, telephone and cable TV. Some homes will not require additional wiring and installation fees will vary according to the homes existing wiring.

Pricing for all of the proposed services will be published online soon, according to Goldstein, so that residents can make side-by-side comparisons to current service pricing.

Financing model is ‘solid’

Big Canoe resident Steve Schwartz registered his opposition to the project.

“You are asking us to finance this,” Schwartz said. “There will be several million dollars that the POA will have to finance.” It’s not coming from you (ETC), it’s coming from our pockets. Secondly, I have no intention of taking any of these services. I don’t see a way that we can even break even on this. We are going to be operating this system at a loss. We are already paying for a fire station. We are already paying for making up the losses from some other activities and now we are going to take on an even bigger burden by financing this.”

Schwartz claimed that half of Big Canoe homeowners are part-time and that “the money is not going to be there.” He contends that a lot of residents are not going to use the fiber network services.

“It is true that the partnership that is envisioned is the POA will take on the burden of capital, if you will,” Thompson said. “But we own the system and we get to control our future because of that.”

The total not-to-exceed construction price would be about $10.1 million, according to Thompson. He also mentioned that revenue sharing would result in a “significant portion” of the resulting revenue to ETC and would flow back to the POA to service the debt and the more customers that sign up for services the smaller the assessment to residents.

“Right now the models we are working on [estimate] 55 percent of owners subscribing to Internet, and in the mid-40s for cable and telephone service,” Thompson said. “Those numbers are what ETC experiences in other places where they have to compete with other providers for those services. The model there is solid.

“The difference in what the revenue needs to be made up with monthly assessments is $13 per month per household and $11 per lot owner. That difference pays for the infrastructure and the availability for the service and although individuals may not want the service today, the availability of that service for others later in years, or if you decide to sell your home, your buyer may want high speed internet.”

Asked about the life of the fiber that will be installed, Smith said that based on his experience, the fiber could last “30 plus” years. The piece that will change is the unit at the home that can be upgraded due to changes in technology, according to Smith.

Increased home values as a result of having high-speed Internet services available range from, depending on rural or urban markets, 3-7 percent, based on studies that included over 200,000 homes, according to Thompson.

“The business model that you will be voting on is a two-fold thing,” Thompson said. “If you think the project is good for Big Canoe and believe the debt service is manageable for Big Canoe, and the other component will be you sign up and commit to service. If we don’t get ample commitments to service then the project will not go forward.

Straw vote favors the project

In a show of hands of the Community Coffee attendees almost 100 percent indicated that the project would be good for Big Canoe and about the same indicated that they would sign up for the Internet service. About 50 percent said they would sign up for the telephone service in addition to the internet and about 60 percent would sign up for cable TV, according to Thompson who agreed that the informal survey could be skewed due to the fact that the attendees were interested in the project.

“Upon approval by the vote, there will be about 90-120 days for attorneys to settle on the language, construction agreements, ordering materials and getting the construction crews in and scheduled before construction would begin,” Thompson said, “and then 18-24 months for construction.”

The Internet Task Force members include: Dan Bishop, Gary Collier, Bob Crouch, Bruce Friedman, Paul Goldstein, Alex Henderson, Tim Moran, Brian Plikaytis, Richard Rambo, John Thompson and Tom Williams.

More information about Ellijay Telephone Company can be found at www.etcnow.com

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