The Natchitoches Parish School Board will enter into a contract with EpicTouch to install fiber cable throughout Natchitoches Parish in an effort to bring high speed internet access to students. The decision was voted on and approved at Thursday’s meeting on July 8 after much discussion at the Committee meeting on July 6.
“We’re talking about a game changer,” said Board President Steven Harris.
The bid with Epic Touch is $7,980,000. Of the total amount, the district has $1.2 of it dedicated out of ESSER 2 funds. The roughly $6.8 million still needed to fund the project has gone out for ESSER 3 funding and the district will have an answer back on that from LDOE soon.
The $7.98 million price tag is for 95 percent of the parish to be lit up with broadband internet (this means 95 percent of all the addresses the district supplied in its request for RFPs). To bring the internet to 100 percent of the parish would cost an extra $12 million.
Donnie Barker, an engineer with EpicTouch explained that there’s lots of students in the parish that live down a four-mile road with no one else on the road so this makes up the 5-10 percent that will be missed in Phase 1 of the installation project.
The original cost of this project was around $10 million and EpicTouch contributed $2 million to have “skin in the game.”
“I feel it’s [the broadband installation project] the biggest thing that’s happened to Natchitoches Parish in years and I think it’s going to change the way that we do business,” said Barker. “I don’t want us to be thought of as a general contractor or a utility company. We want to come into this project as partners with Natchitoches Parish School Board.”
Superintendent Dr. Grant Eloi said he wanted to make sure everyone knows that the money the School District is putting up for the project is not general fund money or local money. It’s federal dollars that are meant for expanding internet access. Also, if the district allots the total amount for this project from ESSER 2 and 3 funding there’s a high likelihood that it won’t all be used because the district has already gone after a $1 million grant for broadband. The district was told there would probably be a high number of these grants coming up in the future.
This means that it’s more likely that the district will have multiple sources of funding for broadband installation.
“Well I’m so hooked on this thing and I’m dreaming about those little orange poles because I can’t wait to start seeing them go down in our areas now,” said Board member Eugene Garner.
Barker said there are going to be approximately 7,875 orange markers. EpicTouch has estimated fiber to the home student served is 626 with a possible of over 5,000 after this project.
To put things into perspective, 25 meg download speed would easily allow a household to stream on two tvs, have a couple of laptops while a couple children are on their smartphones. The specifications on this project is 100 meg. There’s incremental costs.
Finance Director Lee Waskom explained to the Board that the first key to the success of this program is to secure the fiber optic wire and this needs to be done as soon as possible. He suggested the Board do something with the $1.2 million its already dedicated to the project to secure the fiber optic wire so EpicTouch can put it in their warehouse. This amount would secure enough wire to do the entire parish.
“Otherwise if we wait for the rest of the country to clean out the warehouse then we will have to wait 44 weeks which is almost a year delay on getting started,” explained Waskom.
Barker said he’s spoken to the major warehouses in the country and they are all running short on fiber. He would have liked to have ordered all the supplies for this project two weeks ago but the reality is they’re going to try to get ordered as soon as they’re able to do so. He said they have the ability to order $800,000-900,000 worth of material and have a particular place to store it.
The contractor that Barker works with has already committed four crews at one time and they can get five miles a week of board with conduit under roads, conduits installed and pedestals installed. Then it’s EpicTouch’s responsibility to splice all the fiber cable and to bury the fiber drop or aerial drop it to the customer’s home, install the router/wi-fi for hotspot, and if they wish a telephone number.
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