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Village Council— Mixed outlook for broadband

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Seventy-three percent of village residents who responded to a recent survey desire better Internet service, and 40 percent would like their cell phone service to improve. Ninety-five percent of respondents have an Internet connection, and 88 percent said the Internet is “very important” to their households. Fifty percent of respondents are “somewhat satisfied” with their Internet service, and 17 percent are not satisfied at all. Twenty-seven percent of those who responded are self-employed, and attempting to work from home either full or part time, while 71 percent use their home Internet for work some time each week.

Currently, 23 percent of respondents pay from $100 to $150 per month for telephone, TV and Internet service, with 9 percent paying more than $200 per month. Thirty-seven percent pay between $40 and $60 monthly just for Internet, 20 percent pay between $60 and $80, and 16 percent pay more than $80 just for Internet. 

Forty-four percent are willing to pay what they currently pay for improved services.

These are some of the figures delivered at Village Council’s March 20 meeting by Andrew Cohill, CEO of Design Nine, the firm hired by the Village to evaluate the feasibility of creating a municipal broadband network in Yellow Springs. Among other responsibilities, the firm designed and implemented the survey to assess demand for improved broadband with results reported by Cohill at the meeting.

Interest level in the survey, and in the topic, was surprisingly high, he said. While in most communities, about 3 to 6 percent of residents respond, in Yellow Springs the number was 40 percent.

“That was staggering,” he said.

Yet while interest in improving Internet service in the village is high, other factors contribute to a more mixed picture for the feasibility of a Village-owned fiber optic network, according to Cohill, whose charge also involved an evaluation of current conditions that work for or against creating a municipal fiber optic infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the most significant challenge is cost.

“The longterm challenge would be figuring out how to fund it. It’s a significant undertaking,” said Cohill.

Cohill’s report was the initial report on the results of the Design Nine survey, which was one component of the consulting work for which Design Nine was hired, with other components including making a recommendation to Council regarding whether the Village should proceed with developing the network as a new Village utility. Cohill’s report did not include a recommendation; he said he will return to Council in several weeks to make a final report and recommendation. The firm was paid $48,500 for its services, offset by a $7,500 grant from the Yellow Springs Community Foundation.

Council hired Design Nine following a recommendation from the local group Springs-Net, which recommended that the Village create a fiber optic infrastructure following two years of research on the topic. A previous survey administered by Springs-Net indicated wide village support for the system, Springs-Net members have stated.

According to Cohill in his report to Council, adding to the cost of the local project would be the poor state of village alleys, which would require extensive tree-trimming so that Village crew could access utility poles to hang fiber optic 

“The alleys are badly overgrown,” he said, estimating that the cost of trimming the trees would be $900,000.

Secondly. the small size of the village presents another financial challenge, as a critical mass of users is necessary to help keep costs down.

“The more people, the less the cost,” Cohill said. “A majority of homes would have to use this to have good cash flow.”

And Internet service is already readily available from Time Warner (now Spectrum) and AT&T, and at a reasonable cost, Cohill said. 

The cost to the Village of installing the fiber optic infrastructure would range from $4 million to $5 million, Cohill said, although downtown alone could be wired for about $400,000 to $500,000. Cohill recommended that the Village simply construct the basic fiber optic infrastructure and have a private sector company run the business, since Village government doesn’t have the technical expertise to manage such a business, he said. Adding that expertise would require hiring new staff members, thus increasing the cost, he said.

In response to questions, Cohill stated that nationwide about 300 communities have “made some investment” in providing municipal broadband. In Ohio, Hudson has created a downtown network, and Columbus has also invested in broadband.

In response to Cohill, Scott Fife of Springs-Net suggested that the problem with overgrown alleys and inaccessible poles is one the Village will have to address sooner or later, making that investment less onerous.

“It’s an ongoing problem that the Village must address at some point,” he said.

In other Council March 20 business:

• Council unanimously passed a resolution affirming Yellow Springs as a “Welcoming Community of Opportunity for All Persons Regardless of Race, Age, Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Ethnicity, Economic Status, Ability or Religious Affiliation.”

The resolution, whose title is a restatement of one of Village Council’s core values for Yellow Springs, is “designed to state a broad and general principle” of Yellow Springs as a welcoming community, in the face of recent Trump administration efforts to restrict immigration, according to Council member Marianne MacQueen, who brought the document to Council with the help of Jessica Thomas of the Human Relations Commission.  The two had reviewed statements from a variety of communities before creating the document, which reads, in part:

“Council for the Village of Yellow Springs supports and encourages local and regional efforts to welcome and offer sanctuary to immigrants and others who are being targeted on the basis of religion, nationality, culture, gender identity or race.”

• Council unanimously approved a resolution identifying 2017 Village Council goals. This year Council added a new goal to its eight previous ongoing goals, that of increasing affordability. However, such a goal “is probably not achievable,” Council President Karen Wintrow said. “It feels like a complicated goal to add.”

But Council members MacQueen and Juditrh Hempfling disagreed.

“Can Village Council do anything about affordability? Yes, we can,” Hempfling said, citing actions such as developing new housing on the Village-owned Glass Farm and creating policies that offset higher utility payments as examples. 

Hempfling also noted the “whole issue of the level of taxation in this community.” In the next few years several local entities, including the Miami Township Trustees and the local schools, have indicated plans to put levies on the ballot for new income, and Village government will likely return to voters to renew its property tax levy.

“We have to think hard and deep about how much we can increase the level of taxation,” she said.

• Council members agreed to write a letter to the CEO of US Bank requesting that the bank withdraw its financial support of Energy Transfer Partners, one of the companies developing the Dakota Access pipeline project. The move came following a request made by several villagers at a previous meeting that the Village withdraw its funds from US Bank. Writing the letter seems an appropriate first step, according to Council members, several of whom had researched other options for local investment. Most financial institutions do have investments in oil and gas, according to Wintrow.

“The sad truth is that probably all of us are invested in oil if we have a retirement plan or a 401(k) plan,” said Village Treasurer Rachel McKinley. Council asked McKinley to research whether the YS Federal Credit Union, which invests locally, would be able to meet the Village’s needs.

• Council unanimously approved $383,300 in supplemental appropriations for this year’s budget. The added expenditures included $66,000 in “miscellaneous legal fees above retainer” in Council’s budget, which Manager Patti Bates said  this week are linked to the New Year’s Eve incident and the upcoming solar project; $1,900 in “legal fees outside retainer” for the Safe Routes to Schools project; $200,000 from the green space fund in support of conservation, for the recent Arnovitz farm auction; $40,000 for generator repair for Bryan Center; and $22,000 for a new truck for sewer collection.

• Council unanimously approved a request from the Arts and Culture Commission for a budget of $4,000, with which it will add educational components to its activities.

In a review of the group’s 2016 activities, ACC member John Fleming cited the group’s awarding of the Village Inspiration and Design Award, or VIDA, to the Yellow Springs Dharma Center and to Beth Holyoke and Kaethi Seidl, who were recognized for “enhancing the beauty and creativity of out Village.” The group also sponsored the first art exhibit since 2012 in the John Bryan Community Gallery, completed installation of the Yellow Springs Art Cans downtown, supported a fundraising event for the Yellow Springs Skate Park and installed the KIND NESS banners that “recognized the importance of being kind and highlighted the Village’s value of being a welcoming community,” according to the report.

Villagers’ response to the two banners, which hung near downtown over Xenia Avenue, was “surprising and overwhelming,” according to Fleming.

• Village Superintendent of Electric and Water Distribution Johnnie Burns has been awarded the National Larry Hobart Seven Hats Award by the American Public Power Association,” according to Manager Bates. The award is given annually to the manager of a small electric utility in recognition of the “many different roles a manager fills in smaller communities with fewer staff,” according to the manager’s report. He will receive the award at the APPA’s national conference in Orlando, Fla., in June.

• Before its regular meeting, Council met in executive session for “the purpose of discussion of the potential hiring of a public employee.”

Council’s next regular meeting is Monday, April 3, at 7 p.m. at Bryan Center.

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