Sedona isn’t supposed to get a high-speed Internet boost any time soon | Wbactive

Cornville and Rimrock are on track to have improved broadband internet access by October 2023, but Sedona, Cottonwood and Camp Verde are not.

As part of the Yavapai County Broadband Initiative, the county has allocated $20 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to build a fiber optic network that will bring high-speed Internet to unserved or underserved areas. So far, the district has awarded two contracts for network expansion.

Altice USA, which bought Suddenlink, received $12,614,582 in county ARPA funds to expand service to Rimrock, Lake Montezuma, Beaver Creek, Cornville, Mayer, Spring Valley, Cordes Lakes and Paulden.

Cox Communications was awarded $3,757,763 to expand service to Congress and Black Canyon City. Altice provided $25,210,947 of its own funds and Cox contributed $6,789,755.

The county’s unincorporated areas around Camp Verde, Cottonwood and Sedona, including the village of Oak Creek, will not be included in this expansion because Altice’s response to the county’s original call for proposals is unclear, according to Corey, librarian at the Yavapai County Christians, representing the YCBI team, made a statement to the Sedona City Council on October 25.

“That [Altice] Proposal did not break out the unregistered and registered passages [effectively, house connections] in those areas so people looking at the proposal had no way of knowing which of those crossings should be funded by ARPA funds and which shouldn’t, as only county funds could flow only into unincorporated areas,” Christians told dem Advice.

“A year ago it was really crystal clear,” Deputy Mayor Scott Jablow told Christen. “Any home. So if we do an RFP and the contractor comes back with an answer and an offer and leaves things out, they might not get selected. Why should they even be considered if you’re releasing it the way it’s been suggested to us? … They’re just going to leave all these people or the homes without the service and just go to those in the county?”

“It has always been our intention to secure multiple rounds of funding to complete the build-out,” said Christians. “We weren’t told that,” Jablow replied.

“When we put out an RFP, we don’t have control over the responses we get,” Christians said. “We said we would accept partial suggestions from people so we can actually move forward with the project.”

“Why didn’t you bring it out again?” Jablow asked.

“There just wasn’t enough time,” Christians said, acknowledging that the county could have issued the RFP sooner but adding that the complexity of ARPA rules made it difficult. “We received offers that worked in areas that were part of the RFP.”

“Was it written that that was likely to happen?” asked Councilwoman Jessica Williamson.

Christians did not answer the question.

Because partial proposals were allowed, Williamson continued, “The intention was not to work the entire district and the choice was basically up to the providers where they wanted to work. Is that true?”

“To an extent,” Christian said.

When asked again if Williamson asked for clarification from the vendors at the time, he replied that if the district had told them what to do to correct their proposal, it would have given them an unfair advantage.

“They weren’t told they were deficient in that regard?” asked Williamson.

“I can’t really say anything about that,” said Christian.

“The advice has been very, very positive that they were willing to put that money there so that we can be served. We were very happy about that and were thrilled. And – full disclosure – that’s extremely disappointing,” Williamson said. “Basically, we have no chance because the proposal was unclear. This appears to be a critical error.”

While clarity in the RFP would have allowed Yavapai County to contract with Altice to bring broadband service to the unincorporated areas around Sedona, Cottonwood and Camp Verde, federal restrictions would not have allowed the communities themselves to be included in the contract will use county ARPA funds. The cities would have had to come up with their own ARPA or general funds under a separate agreement with the county and Altice to get the service they planned.

On September 14, 2021, the City of Sedona committed $494,000, or 20% of its ARPA funding, as its contribution to broadband rollout in partnership with a prospective provider and the county, directing city officials to negotiate an agreement with the county to implement the decision .

“Broadband was one of the few things we were allowed to spend ARPA funds on,” said Molly Spangler, Sedona’s director of economic development. She added that “one of the best things about this deal” was the way it enabled the city to use small amounts of city and county ARPA funds to complete a much larger project.

However, in the summer of 2022, Altice notified the City of Sedona that it had significantly overestimated the number of underserved passersby in the Sedona area and was no longer interested in expanding the service to Sedona.

“That was the main obstacle for us to spend this ARPA money,” Spangler said. “We had the impression that there are many underserved houses.”

Jim Campbell, Altice’s vice president of state and local government affairs, spoke to the city council about his company’s calculations. He explained that their original proposal identified 7,202 potential passers-by in the Sedona/VOC area, of which 2,783 were within the Sedona community boundaries. Later revisions showed that the number of underserved or unserved passers-by in the city was closer to 150. Campbell argued that at this scale, it wouldn’t make financial sense for Altice to expand into Sedona.

“Right now it just wouldn’t be wise to build it under market forces,” Campbell said. “The cost of Sedona without any funding is extremely high.”

Federal guidelines define broadband service as an upload speed of 25 Mbps [megabits per second] and a download speed of 3 Mbps. According to Campbell, the current speed Altice offers in Sedona is 150 Mbps upload and 7.5 Mbps download.

The numbers Campbell presented were not internally consistent. He told the city council that expanding the Sedona area without access to ARPA funds or any other grant program would be a $60 million project at a cost of maybe $5,000 or $6,000 per pass.

“If we can get in at $2,500 a house, that justifies building it,” Campbell said. He later added, “If we get it down to $3,000, we’ll talk.”

Altice’s original cost estimate for the incorporated and unincorporated areas around Sedona combined – as submitted to the council on the same day – was US$14,154,627. This included 7,202 passes at an average cost of $1,965 per pass. The total city and county contributions would have been $918,639, or 6.5% of the total cost.

At an estimated cost of $6,000 per pass, the cost of building 7,000 passes in the Sedona/VOC area would be $42 million, not $60 million.

“Those numbers were kind of analogous,” Campbell said when asked to comment on the discrepancies, declining to provide further explanation. For comparison purposes, Altice’s estimated cost per pass was $1,700 for the Cottonwood areas and $984 for the Camp Verde area.

Councilor Jon Thompson drew attention to the difference between the cost per pass for Camp Verde and Sedona and repeatedly asked Campbell and Christians to explain why. No one answered his question directly, apart from Christian saying he needed to look at the data.

“It is my understanding that terrain plays a large part in the cost of Sedona,” Christians responded to a follow-up request for clarification on the cost difference.

Both Campbell and Christians suggested that the broadband improvements currently under construction will reduce the cost of expanding Sedona in the future and make Yavapai County a more competitive bidder for additional federal funding through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program. Christians estimate Arizona will receive between $800 million and $1 billion in upcoming BEAD funding.

Campbell also noted that BEAD funding would make the cost of expanding broadband access in Sedona more affordable. He explained that plans involving BEAD funding must be approved by the end of 2023, with “money flowing in Q1 24” and that BEAD funding would also enable faster connection speeds.

The new links that Altice will install at Cornville and Rimrock will offer at least 100Mbps symmetric upload/download speeds, while Cox plans to install 1Gbps symmetric links.

Sedona businessman James Curry, who was asked by City Attorney Kurt Christianson to review the Altice proposal, told the council he had options. “There are other interested ISPs in Sedona,” he told the council, noting that two of them are currently running Sedona expansion numbers.

Curry reminded councilors that the city can work with any ISP and is eligible to apply for BEAD funding itself without first committing to an ISP. He also pointed out that “at the end of the day, the ISP owns and benefits from the system built, and that’s taxpayer money going to a for-profit corporation.”

Spangler expressed optimism that ongoing improvements to FCC service area maps will reduce future confusion by allowing the city to check an ISP’s numbers when it receives a proposal. “Right now we’re not able to do that,” she said. “That’s always been the big conundrum in broadband.”

The City of Sedona has maintained various broadband deployment proposals since at least 2015.

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