Almost a year in, Spectrum’s broadband expansion project will soon pick up speed

Published 7:02 pm Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Representatives from Spectrum gave an update on their broadband expansion project in Boyle County at the Fiscal Court meeting on August 22.

Magistrates said they’ve gotten many questions from constituents about when they might get broadband, and have been largely unable to give exact answers. Much of Spectrum’s work so far has been preparation that’s been somewhat delayed due to the large scale of the project.

Benjamin U’Sellis, who’s heading the project at Spectrum, said that most of the front-end work like getting permits should be done soon, after which they can pick up speed on actually connecting lines.

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The project was announced last year as part of both federal and state dollars going toward expanding broadband in rural areas. Spectrum is bringing fiber-optic networks to rural parts of Boyle County and in 40 counties throughout the state. U’Sellis said they will reach more than 60,000 homes just in Kentucky.

In Boyle County, they will bring gigabit broadband to more than 2,500 houses that have dealt with slow internet or rely on landlines. U’Sellis said the internet will be the same fast speed as in larger cities like Lexington.

Work started almost a year ago in October 2022 when Spectrum officials presented a map of the project’s coverage. The map is still on display in the courthouse, and has not changed over the course of the project.

Phase 1 will service 1,445 homes, primarily in Magisterial Districts 1, 2 and 4. Charter Communications, which owns Spectrum, won $1 billion in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. Boyle County’s Phase 1 is being funded by the federal RDOF money.

U’Sellis said they’ve activated about 100 homes and 15 miles of fiber as part of phase 1, mostly in the western part of the county and some just east of Danville. They are continuing to build the lines, and there are more homes where the build is almost done.

Magistrate Paula Bodner expressed concern that there haven’t been any more homes activated in the last few months. U’Sellis explained that they have to work in about 15 sections, which contain many houses each, and can only activate a section when all the work is done there.

“We have to build a complete section before we can light that up and serve all those customers; we can’t just connect one house and then the next house,” U’Sellis said. “There’s plenty of more work that’s going on, there have been more permits that have come in, there have been more fiber that’s been laid, but we have not yet completed another boundary. When we do that there’ll be another 200 homes activated.”

U’Sellis explained that the design portion of a fiber project is a several months-long process.

“We walk every road, look at every single home, every driveway, every railroad crossing, and every single pole we have to attach to, which is thousands of poles across the county,” U’Sellis said.

Then Spectrum has to get permits to build on the existing power lines, and receive approval for each individual pole.

He said they have enough labor and enough material for the project, but the design process and getting permits from pole owners has pushed the project back a little.

He said that Spectrum usually asks for only a few hundred pole permits per year, but now they are asking for thousands per month, which takes more time to go through on the pole owners’ end.

“[For phase 1], all of our design has been completed, all of those permits have been submitted, and now we’re just waiting for approvals back from Inter County Energy and KU to get on those poles and get building,” U’Sellis said.

Magistrate Jason Cullen asked if there’s any way to fast track the pole permits. Inter County Energy President Jerry Carter was in attendance at the meeting, and he said that every party is working together to get this project complete in a timely manner, but the number of permits takes time to go through.

He said Spectrum is not regulated by the Public Service Commission, but Inter County Energy is. The PSC gives them tariffs that they have to operate by. Carter said the company is in compliance with the PSC, and they are working as quickly as they legally can.

Phase 2 of the project is funded through the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority’s Rural Infrastructure Improvement Fund. It will service another 1,158 underserved homes, primarily in Magisterial Districts 3 and 4.

For phase 2, Spectrum is almost done with the design process, and will be sending pole permits this fall. The whole project will service almost every home in rural Boyle County, but Spectrum hopes to eventually reach all of them.

Spectrum is anticipating another round of state funding, which could significantly increase the number of homes they reach. U’Sellis said that many workers aren’t used to working on such major projects over so much land, and they’re still getting used to the extra load.

“We’ve got a lot of ground to cover,” U’Sellis said. “There’s a lot of moving parts so we’re trying to bring more people on to manage that workload.”

The original timeline for the whole project was 24 months from the start date of October 2022. U’Sellis said if they get pole permits approved in time, they can still be done in 24 months.

Another concern that magistrates have expressed is a lack of communication between the court and Spectrum about updates to the project. U’Sellis apologized for any lack of communication, and also said that it’s hard to give substantial updates about the project when it’s still in the design and permitting phase. As it moves more into heavy construction, they’ll be able to give more updates on how many homes have been activated or how many poles have been connected.

Tracy Gifford, senior director in charge of construction, said that people in rural parts of the county should expect to see more Spectrum trucks near their property working on power lines. He said they’ve had some outside contractors; however, trucks working on the power lines should be marked whether they’re from Spectrum or an outside contractor.