The Payson Town Council Thursday unanimously voted to reserve $90,000 in its budget to support the building of reliable internet.
The unanimous vote reversed the split vote on the same motion two weeks earlier after members of the Broadband Consortium, the MHA Foundation and Cable One first sought support.
So, what changed?
After that first meeting, the volunteer Broadband Consortium met with the mayor, two other council members, town staff, business owners and concerned citizens. The consortium has been working on finding a solution to Payson’s broadband issues for some five years.
Nick Robinson, a consultant with the broadband industry, along with Mac Feezor, a retired engineer and Greg Friestad, a retired broadband engineer, made a presentation at a June 7 meeting on why reliability matters more than speed.
“Today it is not about capacity, it’s about redundancy and resiliency,” said Robinson. “I could get a 1 gig fiber circuit from CenturyLink, but if it’s not resilient, it has much less value.”
That June 7 meeting changed the minds
of the mayor and the other councilors who had voted against the $90,000 placeholder on May 30.
“All of my questions were answered last Friday,” said Mayor Tom Morrissey.
Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian agreed.
“I would like to thank the gentlemen from the Broadband Consortium who were there last week for answering questions ... to clarify a lot of things above my pay grade,” she said. “I’m just not personally going to make a decision on something I am not clear on.”
The vote two weeks ago spawned comments from the audience during the June 13 meeting.
Maia Crespin, executive director for the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of the businesses in town.
“As the executive director, I am speaking on behalf of my members — for them the internet is vitally important,” she said. “Even if it is out for only an hour, it is thousands of dollars in lost revenue.”
Jolynn Schinstock, a contractor with U.S. defense agencies, had a hard time explaining to the government why she could not be reached either by email or phone when Rim Country experienced internet outages.
“I am just this little bitty person working and the internet is super important,” she said.
With a catch in her throat, Councilor Barbara Underwood explained why she supported the proposal.
“For me the biggest thing is there was actually a death,” she said. “He lost his life when he went down to communicate for his job. When he had an accident, you couldn’t even communicate with emergency services. For me, it’s just a no-brainer to move forward.”
Consortium members said contributions by town and perhaps Gila County could trigger matching grants from the state as well.
Representatives from Cable One as well as MHA Foundation President Kenny Evans both attended the meeting to answer questions.
The MHA Foundation has pledged $2 million to help Cable One string a new broadband cable from Show Low to Payson. The additional money from Payson as well as hoped-for support from Gila County would create another high-speed, high-capacity line from Phoenix to Payson at an estimated cost of $8 million.
This would create a new, high-speed loop from Phoenix to Show Low and back to Phoenix again by a different loop. The new link to Phoenix could also eliminate the outages that have plagued communities in the White Mountains area.
If Cable One also strikes a deal to connect its loop to the existing CenturyLink trunk line from Camp Verde, it would provide a resilient system, while also boosting potential speed and capacity.
Putting in the two new lines would not immediately affect the speed or capacity of internet service for homeowners. Most get their service through Suddenlink, which has a contract with CenturyLink to tap into the existing line. Businesses along the route of the cable could contract for service with Cable One. But homeowners won’t see the benefit unless CenturyLink, Suddenlink and businesses like Verizon also contract with Cable One to tap into the new line.
Cable One has offered to provide the town with 2 gigabytes of high-speed, high-capacity, interruption proof internet service through the new line for the next 20 years, in return for $90,000 a year for the next 10 years.
The council’s action last week authorizes the town staff to negotiate that the council would still need to approve.
Broadband Consortium members have said that Gila County has also set aside $2 million to help resolve the region’s internet reliability problems.
Meanwhile, the federal government also recently announced it would spend $17 million to boost internet access for schools and libraries throughout the county.
It’s unclear how much of that grant could go to connecting Payson to Phoenix, since the E-rate grant rules require a strict separation between the money spent on schools and any other internet service. However, the E-rate grant adds to the complexity of the negotiations. Cable One is also the contractor for the E-rate expansion for schools.
In its motion, the council specifically did not indicate any particular company in order to keep options open.
“I just wanted to verify ... we were not committing to anyone at this time,” said Councilor Chris Higgins. “We were just committing to a placeholder to be used for a redundant internet system.”
“I would support that,” said Town Manager LaRon Garrett.