Updated: Broadband project terminated

Published 9:37 am Thursday, October 4, 2012

By Fred Guarino
The Lowndes Signal

A $59 million grant to Trillion Communications from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for an $86 million South Central Alabama Broadband Project in eight Alabama counties has been terminated.

Ralph E. Brown, CEO of Trillion Communications Corporation confirmed the decision Thursday morning.

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However, SCABC officials who met in Hayneville Thursday said they hope to get the grant resurrected and re-granted to the SCABC or to seek funds to move the project forward on their own.

The project was set to construct 2,200 miles of fiber-optic broadband network in eight counties including Butler, Crenshaw, Conecuh, Dallas, Escambia, Lowndes, Macon and Wilcox.

Dr. Aaron D. McCall, regional e-program manager for the SCABC, confirmed in February the project was suspended by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

He said the project was supposed to be up and running by Aug. 13, 2013. However, in February, less than 1 percent of the work had been done, including 29 miles of cable in Crenshaw County, laid by Troy Cable, and 20 miles of conduit in Lowndes County, laid by A2D.

McCall said the government gave a “stop work” order until it could evaluate whether those doing the construction could bring the project in on time.

A letter from the Department of Commerce indicated the project might be terminated by July 23. But no word was received until this past week, McCall said.

“We finally heard from NTIA, and they terminated the Trillion Grant, and SCABC is trying to rescue the grant and have it re-granted to the SCABC,” McCall, who now serves as interim executive director of SCABC, said Wednesday.

A meeting of the SCABC that was scheduled for Thursday at the Hayneville Plaza failed to have a quorum.

“We will be discussing the remote possibility of that happening (getting the grant awarded to the SCABC) as well as pursuing other private monies to construct the network in its original footprint,” McCall said.

“The Trillion CCI BTOP project has been terminated,” Brown said Thursday morning. “I was advised by the NTIA that due to limited non-federal matching funds, it had no alternative but to terminate the project. We are indeed saddened by the decision of the federal government and especially for the people of Alabama’s Black Belt.”

According to information provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce:

“NTIA determined that the CAP response did not adequately address the multiple concerns related to performance progress, budget and match, schedule and implementation, and organizational capacity that were raised by NOAA and NTIA in previous correspondences.

“In addition, Trillion’s CAP response proposed a project that is significantly different in scope and size than what was originally approved for the grant award, though the requested amount of federal funding is unchanged.  The revised plan removed all last mile build-out to residential customers and all WiMax last mile components, and it included fewer (and different) CAI connections than the originally approved plan. “The resulting plan provides significantly less value to the federal government and the communities of Alabama for the same federal funding amount.”

Thursday, McCall, SCABC attorney Tyrone C. Means and SCABC Chairman Charlie King Jr. discussed efforts to move the project forward.

Means said Thursday’s meeting was originally scheduled in hopes of NTIA taking some action.

He said SCABC knew it would be responsible for building the last mile of the project (home connections) because the project had already been re-scoped by Trillion to the middle mile (institutional connections).

He said now it appears that plans for the full footprint of the project will have to be re-scoped “wherein SCABC will look at building the entire network.”

Means said SCABC would try to see if the grant could be resurrected “because obviously there is a lot of money there.” But he said, a lot of the work to build the project has been done as the people with expertise to do parts of the project have been in communication with SCABC. He said methods of funding the project would be considered both with and without grant money.

“Ultimately … we have to tell the membership what we’ve got and get the buy-in of the membership of doing it the way the funding results,” Means said.

Means said he did not know if reapplication would be necessary or if there could be an appeal of what has been done by the federal government.

King was asked where the grant termination leaves Lowndes County. It purchased the Hayneville Plaza with a $3.5 million bond issue for the broadband project.

“The county is just like everybody else, we’re in an awkward situation here with the termination of the grant,” King said. “And hopefully the county, along with the SCABC, we just sit down and work things out and see where we go from here.”