The entrance to the Kenai Peninsula Borough building in Soldotna is seen here on June 1. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

The entrance to the Kenai Peninsula Borough building in Soldotna is seen here on June 1. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Assembly to take up internet expansion at next meeting

The assembly will decide whether to move forward with the construction of internet towers at the Oct. 13 meeting.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will decide whether or not to move forward with the construction of internet towers, potentially extending high-speed internet access to some rural communities on the peninsula, at the Oct. 13 meeting.

The assembly approved between $1.2 and $2 million to “support improved public access to internet through communications tower site development and through communications infrastructure grants” in June through resolution 2020-047, which outlined how the borough would use CARES Act money received from the state. The borough received proposals from Alaska Communication Services (ACS) and SPITwSPOTS, Inc. Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce was authorized to award grants via resolution 2020-058, which passed on Sept. 1.

The assembly awarded two grants in late August 2020. SPITwSPOTS, Inc. was awarded $1,537,500 for tower installation and deployment. ACS was awarded $262,500 for the upgrade of Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexers, which will deliver higher bandwidth over greater distances.

According to Kenai Peninsula Borough IT Director Ben Hanson, the borough has finalized a grant agreement with SPITwSPOTS, Inc. but is still in active negotiations with ACS.

The borough’s Purchasing & Contracting, IT, OEM and Land Management departments originally considered borough construction of communications towers, but turned the project over to commercial internet service providers who they thought would have greater knowledge of the residential areas where internet service is most lacking, Hanson said via email.

SPITwSPOTS Inc. is an Alaska-based internet service provider (ISP) that started in Homer in 2005. In response to COVID-19, the company has been actively trying to expand their coverage to students and teachers who do not have access to high-speed internet by providing them with internet installation and internet for free.

Both SPITwSPOTS Inc. and ACS have also signed the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced in response to COVID-19 and which has been signed by more than 800 companies and associations, according to the FCC.

By signing the pledge, companies agree to not end internet service for any residential or small business customers who cannot pay bills due to COVID-19, waive late fees customers incur as a result of economic situations due to COVID-19 and open Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

During their Sept. 28 meeting, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission recommended that the assembly enact four of the five proposed lease agreements between SPITwSPOTS Inc. and the borough. Ordinance 2020-41, which is the last step, details the lease agreements between the borough and SPITwSPOTS Inc. in five locations throughout the peninsula: Ninilchik, Nikolaevsk, Cohoe, Bear Creek and Tyonek.

The commission is recommending that the Tyonek location be removed from the ordinance because the borough does not have a “clear title” to the land.

According to Borough Acting Planning Director and Land Management Officer Marcus Mueller, the borough is encouraging SPITwSPOTS Inc. to work with the Native Village of Tyonek, which currently holds the title.

SPITwSPOTS Inc. COO McKenzie McCarthy said Tuesday that the company is interested in working with Tyonek but is still in the process of determining what would be needed to move forward with the project there.

“At this point, we’ve begun the process of engaging the Tyonek Native Village Council to see whether or not we can come to some agreement for being able to provide improved services into that community,” McCarthy said.

CARES Act money must be spent by Dec. 30 of this year.

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