Aransas County held a virtual public engagement workshop regarding broadband connectivity Thursday, March 4. This is commonly referred to as the fiber optic loop project.

The workshop was a part of the Hurricane Harvey Recovery Texas CDBG-DR Program Community Development contract with the General Land Office (GLO). The goal of the workshop was to share an overview of the project, as well as to give a better understanding about the proposed fiber optic loop’s primary and secondary benefits.

The 60-minute workshop gave participants the opportunity to engage and share opinions about broadband issues Aransas County residents face, as well as to provide input into how broadband coverage will help county residents, in general, and first responders in times of emergency.

Long Term Recovery Team (LTRT) member William Whitson opened the workshop noting the idea for a fiber optic loop was born in the early days after Hurricane Harvey.

County IT Director Collin Jackson said the communication blackout experienced after the storm exposed a real vulnerability, and the need for a broadband network that would ensure communication between first responders in those first critical hours.

“This project is important to Aransas County and surrounding counties,” said Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills. “We were the bullseye (with Harvey) and it sat on us for 13 hours. For nine of those 13 hours we couldn’t communicate with anyone.

“Social media posts said Aransas County was destroyed, and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was destroyed.

“Family members didn’t know if we were alive.

“Collin (Jackson) and others found a copper wire that gave us a connection to the outside world.

“Hopefully, the situation that happened after Harvey will never happened again.”

Rockport Mayor Pat Rios noted the city’s only charge is the health, safety, and welfare of city residents.

“We were at the Rockport Service Center (through and after Harvey) and couldn’t talk to our police, or the EOC,” he said.

Rios reiterated what Mills said, noting, “The word was everything was destroyed.”

He recalled interviews with national news outlets that couldn’t be completed because cell service would go in and out.

“We told them we wanted the outside world to know we were safe,” said Rios.

All, if not most, of the communication problems experienced after Harvey will be eliminated if the proposed fiber optic loop comes to fruition.

Sarah Fustine and Herb Sih of Pioneer Partners, gave a brief overview of the proposed project, and outlined its primary and secondary benefits after the opening statements by local officials.

Sih told attendees the purpose of the workshop is to hear from the public.

“Don’t overthink this,” he said.

Quoting Albert Einstein, Sih said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

The March 4 workshop is part of a required feasibility study. If the fiber optic loop is fully funded and implemented, it will provide multiple secondary benefits for the area.

“In order to better prepare for future emergencies along the Coastal Bend, a fiber optic network needs to be developed that will assist local, state, and federal officials communicate under extreme emergency conditions,” said Sih. “The network, if developed over the next few years, has secondary benefits the will assist the local economy. The hope is this will be fully funded, but right now this is a just a study to determine the feasibility of designing the network.”

The county is seeking a $47 million grant to build the fiber optic loop, but it has not been funded.

•••

General information

about the proposed

fiber optic loop project

(Note: The following information was published in The Rockport Pilot in October 2020.)

The fiber optic loop is a proposed project with five other entities.

It includes 270 miles (originally estimated at 150) of fiber optic line, ensuring connectively and redundancy. It is a protected and reliable emergency management communications system linking critical facilities.

The project cost is estimated at $47,840,441, and includes a dedicated fiber optic line stretching from Victoria, through Refugio, and then Aransas County. It then continues south through San Patricio County to the Nueces Bay Bridge.

It does not meet the requirement for servicing Low Mod Income (LMI) areas, but it is an urgent need project and the GLO, which administers the funds, knows there is a need for such a system.

If awarded, the grant requires a 1% match, or approximately $478,404. The projected amounts participating entities will pay are: Aransas County, $313,404; City of Rockport, $100,000; Victoria County, $25,000; Refugio County, $15,000; and San Patricio County, $25,000.

(Note: Nueces County was originally included in the application, but chose not to be named as an applicant. It will still provide $25,000 to Aransas County.)

The application says the fiber optic loop will benefit almost 552,000 people.

•••

It was noted in the March 4 workshop the fiber optic loop will benefit public safety communications by providing a secure communications source during emergencies. During normal times, the network will provide economic benefits to the area.

As an economic benefit, it was noted how important broadband service has become in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the benefits of being able to attend school virtually, work remotely, access telehealth, and accessing information in general.

One in six students does not have access to the Internet, and Texas is second, only to California, in the number of people who have the ability to work remotely.

A broadband network in the Coastal Bend will benefit infrastructure monitoring, as well as economic development. Companies do not want to relocate to areas that don’t have broadband service.

“Workers and companies move out of areas not served by high speed fiber optic networks,” said Sih.

The expansion of such infrastructure is a benefit to existing businesses and individuals, as well.

Sih reviewed the benefits received through fiber optic infrastructure in large cities, such as San Antonio, to small towns like Mont Belview, located just east of Houston.

During a brief question and answer session, several individuals shared their opinions and concerns.

County Commissioner Jack Chaney asked if the system will be upgradeable once installed.

Sih said once the hardware (fiber optic) is installed, the “processes” that us fiber optic can change.

Whitson noted there will be “plenty of volume on the fiber.” He said some of the extra space can possibly be leased to commercial entities, which will help pay maintenance costs.

“The business model (for the fiber optic loop) is being developed right now,” he said.

One man said his company has worked in the area of fiber optics/communication for 30 years.

“We do have funds to help pay for these type of projects,” he said.

Whitson got his contact information and will investigate possible partnerships with the man’s company.

A Cape Valero resident said broadband service in his subdivision is spotty, at best.

“We are sitting out here with very few options,” he said.

Fustine responded, saying, “That is exactly the type of situation we’re trying to address.”

Jackson said the goal of the fiber optic loop project is to fill the digital divide in our area and make Aransas County a “broadband ready” community.

Sih added, “The number of Internet connected devices in our homes is about to explode.”

Whitson noted the fiber optic loop “won’t come quickly”, but added, “It won’t come at all without this grant, and implementation will take longer.

“The judge (Mills) has made it known that he wants to see this (fiber optic loop) happen.”

Whitson said many entities are involved in the proposed project, and all are moving in the same direction.

One woman asked if individuals will still have to pay Internet providers after the fiber optic loop is installed.

Fustine said the woman is referring to “fiber to the home”, and this project will provide the infrastructure to the area.

“That allows competition, which drives down prices,” said Fustine.

If one has a question or would like to comment about the fiber optic loop project, he or she can visit www.aransascounty.org/harvey.

The results of the feasibility study will be available by this summer, but possibly sooner.

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