County leaders for years have discussed the need to develop an affordable broadband plan and have it implemented.

Gila County hired a consultant in the summer of 2019, EntryPoint Networks, to work on the project. EntryPoint is looking at everything from the conceptual network designs to developing a financial pro-forma based on that design and assisting with community and partner engagement. The contract for this work totaled $12,000, paid out at $1,000 per month.

That work identified the need for more extensive details. So the county needs to hire a consultant who will develop detailed designs and plans for a countywide broadband plan, Homero Vela, assistant county manager, told the Gila County Board of Supervisors Aug. 4.

Vela has been overseeing the county’s broadband study efforts. The plans will help in determining the best way to proceed with future implementation of broadband infrastructure and offer the flexibility of regional or countywide deployment.

Vela asked the BOS to allow advertising a request for proposals from consultants to complete Phase 2 of the Master Broadband Plan. Phase 2 includes network design, cost, and operational structure.

Earlier this year the Arizona Commerce Authority awarded Gila County a $50,000 grant for the second level of detail in the broadband planning process.

“It has long been evident that rural communities lag behind urban communities in broadband infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic shines a light on this disparity and brings a focus to the idea that our quality of life is dependent, in many aspects, to the quality of our internet connectivity. A strategic and detailed plan will allow Gila County to submit for broadband grants and pursue an implementation plan. The county does not have the expertise to accomplish this project and is seeking a consultant who has a proven track record in broadband infrastructure development,” Vela said in his documentation to the BOS.

The proposal due date is Sept. 3, and the target date for completion of Phase 2 is December, he said.

Vela said he and the Broadband Strategic Planning Committee are still talking with APS, SRP and Sparklight about the plans each entity has regarding making broadband improvements in the area. He said they estimate they will spend $27 million in Gila County over the next 20 years on broadband.

The committee is also in contact with the state’s Industrial Development Authority about funding and it has visited with an attorney specializing in financing options: creating a broadband improvement district, a cooperative or private-public partnership.

“It’s a complicated issue. We need to see if we can get grants for the first and second miles (the connection from an internet exchange point and then to community hubs) and then find out if ‘subscribers’ (households and businesses) would be willing to pay for the last mile (the connection to homes and businesses),” Vela said.

Tommie Martin, District 1 Gila County supervisor, repeated Vela’s observation about COVID-19 when she said, “COVID-19 really highlights how far behind the eight ball we are.”

“It’s important to get broadband to all of Gila County. We’re spending $200 a month for internet and cell service. We’re being robbed over getting connected. This can get us a lot better service at a lot better cost,” said Tim Humphrey, District 2 Gila County supervisor.

Woody Cline, chair of the BOS and District 3 supervisor, said he wanted to make sure all the information was available to make the best decision for residents, and then he added, “I think we can do this.”

The advertising for the request for proposals is scheduled to run in the Payson Roundup Tuesday.

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