St. Joe Valley Metronet Expansion to Marshall County Debated

A public information meeting was held yesterday evening regarding the St. Joe Valley Metronet’s proposed expansion into Marshall County and the city of Plymouth. While some residents and business owners were in favor of the idea, others were not so pleased with the thought of funding the dark fiber conduits with taxpayer dollars.

Mary Jan Hedman, executive director of St. Joe Valley Metronet, presented a slideshow explaining the benefits the infrastructure would bring to the county, the most notable of which, she said, is economic development. Hedman explained there is currently inadequate broadband services in the county, with limited access to technology service and a monopoly on what she called the “last-mile connection.” This connection, she explained, is the connection between a business and the fiber optic infrastructure, and this monopoly causes inflated prices and very limited competition.

Hedman said if the city and county decide to proceed with funding the expansion of the network from St. Joseph County and South Bend to Marshall County and the city of Plymouth, the dark fiber line would include three conduits, only one of which would be used by Metronet. The others, she said, could be filled by any other entity. The city and county would pay for the cost of installing the conduit, and in return, government entities would have free access to the benefits of the fiber optic line installed by Metronet.

Hedman emphasized that Metronet is not a service provider, and does not set the bandwidth on the line. Dark fiber, she said, has unlimited bandwidth that is only constrained by the devices placed on the line. As more and more devices and services move to utilize the Internet, the need for higher and more reliable bandwidth and high-speed Internet is highlighted, and this, she said, would be a huge benefit to the area.

Companies look for high-speed broadband infrastructure when choosing a location for their business, and with the lack of quality, high-speed broadband access, the city and county are crippled in their ability to attract new business.

However, the estimated price tag of $2.2 million overall – a preliminary estimate that is likely to change – has turned a few people off to the idea, especially since the city and county would be footing that bill. One member of the audience questioned why the taxpayers would hold the financial burden when they are seeing no immediate benefits of it, and asked why a new conduit would need run if there is already fiber running through the city. Hedman explained the city and county benefit through economic growth and the ability to entice new business, and while there is fiber already laid, she said there is no quality, high-speed broadband available and no good, competitive providers.

Currently, a study is being done to come up with construction, permitting, and engineering costs to present to city and county officials in order to allow them to decide whether or not to proceed with the expansion.