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Summit County officials propose county-wide fiber broadband project

The proposed fiber ring network would connect the county's 31 cities, townships and villages, with a data center in Fairlawn.
Summit County Executive
The proposed fiber ring network would connect the county's 31 cities, townships and villages with a data center in Fairlawn.

Summit County officials are hoping to enhance Internet access for local governments – and eventually residents - through a proposed $70 million high-speed fiber broadband network across the county.

The network, called Summit Connects, would consist of a 125-mile fiber optic ring connecting Summit County and all of its 31 city, village and township governments, as well as a central data center, said County Executive Ilene Shapiro.

The preliminary goal of the project is to provide a high-speed, secure and affordable broadband platform for day-to-day operations and communications for local governments, Shapiro said. Eventually, the county will look to partner with private companies to bring the network into homes, schools, businesses and others, she added.

“The residents will, at the end of the day, have access to it, but the first cut, if you will, is on the public safety side of it and the economic development side,” Shapiro said. “Connecting our communities together from a safety perspective is paramount.”

Shapiro has asked county council to approve the project, which would require an estimated $70 million investment from the county, said Brian Nelsen, Shapiro’s chief of staff.

The county plans to use $35 million from its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation and $22 million from the County General Capital Improvement Funds as part of the investment, Nelsen said.

“The private providers that we’ve talked to … have both used the figure of $300 million for the private investment that would build off the ring out into the community,” he said.

If approved next week, officials expect the initial design phase to take 6 to 8 months, Nelsen said. Construction on the fiber ring and data center is expected to be completed by 2025, he added.

At that point, county officials will begin plans to bring the technology to residents, Shapiro said.

“We understand everybody’s anxious; they want to get it, but these are big projects, and we want to make sure that we are mindful, and we are working with all 31 communities to get their input,” Shapiro added.

According to Broadband Ohio, 11% of Summit County’s geographic area lacks access to the minimum levels of upload and download speeds, county officials said.

Local governments encounter similar technology issues, Nelsen added. They are often limited when selecting an internet provider due to cost, he said, and depending on their geographic location, the highest speeds may not be accessible.

Smaller governments can also be susceptible to security issues, he said.

“It’s a struggle for a lot of them to keep current with technology, to ensure their protection against cyberattacks, and just the day to day operations that run county and municipal government, and really all organizations,” Nelsen said.

Summit Connects would also allow the county and 31 communities to reduce collective costs through the use of a single data center, he said.

The fiber would originate from a data center in Fairlawn, which already operates its own broadband network, FairlawnGig, Nelsen said.

Shapiro has requested a contract with the Thrasher Group for design of the fiber ring, and a contract with Mann Parsons Gray Architects for the design of the data center.

Both contracts will not exceed $100,000, according to county officials.

Fairlawn officials recently introduced legislation to enable the creation of a Council of Governments to operate the fiber ring and data center.

“The City of Fairlawn is excited to partner with Executive Shapiro, President Walters and my fellow mayors and trustees to enhance public safety for all 540,000 Summit County residents. Building this critical infrastructure today will make our County safer tomorrow, and open doors for future innovation,” Fairlawn Mayor Bill Roth said in a news release. “We have significant experience building and operating a broadband utility and look forward to sharing our knowledge with our partners throughout this project.”

Summit County Council meets Monday, June 27, the last meeting before its summer recess.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.