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‘Dark fiber’ would connect county to KentuckyWired

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By Randy Patrick

KentuckyWired is coming to Nelson County.

On Tuesday, representatives of Bluegrass Network, a subsidiary of Bluegrass Cellular, came before the Nelson County Fiscal Court to make a pitch for a franchise agreement with the county to allow the company to build a fiber optic network the state can use as part of its KentuckyWired project to provide high-speed broadband service to all 120 Kentucky counties.

County officials and Bluegrass Network agreed to work together on an ordinance to create a franchise, which would then have to be advertised. The franchise would allow the fiber optic lines to run through Nelson County and serve public facilities.

The proposal raised concerns among some magistrates that the company would be competing with existing local internet and cable service providers, such as Bardstown Internet Services, which is owned by County Magistrate Jeff Lear. But Bryan Bell, senior manager for network business operations for Bluegrass Cellular, and attorney John E. Selent, a partner with Dinsmore & Shohl, assured county officials that was not their intent.

Bell said the company’s purpose, as part of the public-private partnership for KentuckyWired, is to build a “dark fiber” network for the state to use in the future. The fiber optic lines are called “dark” because there won’t be “electronics” on them until the state installs the equipment, he explained.

“We’re just giving them the infrastructure to do so, more or less … . Our intent has never been to be a rural broadband internet service provider,” he said.

Selent underscored the point.

“The whole purpose of the franchise agreement it to enable us to fulfill our obligation” to the state government, the lawyer said.

Selent said the project is almost exclusively to serve city, county and state public facilities.

County Judge-Executive Dean Watts said the network would be similar to the dedicated line that now allows Nelson District Court to hold hearings with inmates at the jail by video conferencing rather than bring the prisoners to court.

Selent said it would make it possible, for example, for someone to take part in a Worker’s Compensation hearing at the county courthouse rather than in Frankfort, or to virtually attend a state legislative session without driving to the capital.

Bell said the state has asked his company to connect Bardstown Middle School and the Nelson County Schools Central Office to the network.

The 288-count fiber (meaning 288 strands of glass) network infrastructure would be built by Cincinnati Bell, the East Kentucky Network and Bluegrass Network, which is based in Elizabethtown and owned by the same five rural telephone cooperatives that own Bluegrass Cellular. Bluegrass Network would be responsible for 21 of the counties.

Bell said the state is using Kentucky companies like Bluegrass to build the network because it can do so less expensively than the state can. He explained that his company is building fiber optic lines anyway to serve its cell phone towers, and it’s more cost-effective for the company to build for future growth than to go and dig up old lines, some of which are under concrete and asphalt.

Selent said the demand for fiber optic cable is “exponential.”

Referencing Macquarie Capital, which is financing the project, Magistrate Keith Metcalfe said that the company “wants to get all the cream” from governments because they “know they’ll pay.”

“We’re not coming in here to skim the cream,” Selent said before he was interrupted by Metcalfe, who asked if Bluegrass Network will use the excess capacity it intends to build to serve business customers.

“So Bluegrass is going to make a profit off of it?” Metcalfe asked.

“If we do, we’ll have to pay you a franchise fee,” Selent said.

Bell said that if a line Bluegrass builds passes by a business that wants to connect to it, that would be considered because the company is building larger lines than the state is requesting.

However, he added, Bluegrass it is not becoming a rural broadband service provider.

“Our partners do that,” he said. “They are internet-cable TV providers.”