Commissioners: Fiber network needs business model

The Carroll County Board of Commissioners laid out its priorities for Carroll's fiber optic network Thursday, with their primary objectives being identified as devising a business model that allows for the network's expansion as well as for the county to reap its financial benefits.

"History is replete with stories of companies that had good products that failed," said Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4. "We need to start changing the focus to look more like a business. We've got this high-tech fiber, that's great, but how do we put together a business plan so we stop bleeding tax dollars?"


The board's other priorities are identified as: to move forward on the development of the plan as quickly as possible because the commissioners felt the network "should be way past this point" by now; to create a diverse development committee made up of people other than county staff and private businesses; and to find ways of including the private sector without creating conflicts of interest.

Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, who initially suggested the creation of a business model for the network, said he believes every aspect of the county's mechanisms, especially its enterprise funds, would benefit from having such plans in place.

"We could use this as a model for other enterprise funds so we don't have to reinvent the wheel," Howard said.

The commissioners, during their meeting Thursday morning, instructed staff to begin developing such a plan. Mark Ripper, chief information officer of the Office of Technology Services, and Jon Weetman, administrator of operations and small business development for the Department of Economic Development, were assigned the task.

The purpose of the meeting was to relay to the board individuals who Ripper and Weetman thought would be well-suited as members of a Fiber Development Committee. The committee would ultimately be responsible for the creation of a business model that would result in the expansion of the network to all parts of the county.

They identified nine people — including themselves, members of county government, and representatives of local companies, such as Quantum Telecommunications and Freedom Broadband — to be on the committee.

Howard said he was concerned the committee might have potential vendors on it. Quantum and Freedom Broadband would be part of the voting body as well as possibly competing for work on the fiber network.

The county's intent for the moment is to simply lease the fiber and not to be involved in providing Internet service to businesses and residences, Weetman said. Instead, those who lease the fiber would each contact a service provider independent from the county.

"As long as that doesn't change there's no concern," he said.

Howard said if county government chooses to alter its plans and provide Internet service directly, this could lead to conflict of interest issues in the future for Internet service providers who are members of the committee.

Rothschild suggested the county establish an advisory board made up of these companies that would report directly to the committee.

"We want to get them involved but not be a part of the voting body," Rothschild said.

County Attorney Tim Burke expressed hesitation.

"At a minimum, if the county takes on a larger role we would need to advertise to those on the committee their businesses may be disqualified [from future proposal bidding] by serving on the committee," Burke said. "If the county ends up taking on more responsibility, then we can make that announcement, but we might be getting ahead of ourselves."


Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, said he wants to ensure the county avoids unethical situations.

Howard said he was also concerned with the lack of an end-users perspective, as well as people with marketing experience on the committee. Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, agreed with Howard, and said he would like to see Ripper and Weetman advertise the committee in an effort to attract such people.

"I'm just not comfortable with the handpicking that was done," Wantz said.

Ripper and Weetman will appear before the commissioners in the next 90 days to report on their progress.