The Kent County Commissioners are on the cusp of overhauling the permit process for Internet providers to wire the county — following a recent complaint that the County has held up permit applications for Talkie Communications while steering money from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to help Talkie’s competition, ThinkBig Networks.
The commissioners put a halt on commencing any new projects for a week until a new process can be established. The issue will be a topic at the Oct. 27 commissioners’ meeting.
“We want to make it fair for everyone so the most people can get hooked up [to Internet],” said Kent County Commissioner President Tom Mason.
The commissioners also rescinded $100,000 they allocated to ThinkBig on Oct. 13 to wire the neighborhood of Big Woods.
The $100,000 subsidy for ThinkBig was made at the request of Kent County IT Director Scott Boone at the Oct. 13 commissioners’ meeting — when Boone claimed that he had no knowledge of any providers going to the area.
“From what I know at this time there are no plans for any provider to go in this area,” Boone told the commissioners at the Oct.13 meeting.
Neither of the commissioners knew at the Oct. 13 meeting that the two Internet providers had requested permits for Big Woods, or that Talkie was not seeking, or knew of a subsidy available to bring Internet to the area.
But in a complaint to the commissioners on Oct. 15, Talkie Communications offered a timeline that claimed the county knew about their permit request but moved ThinkBig to the front of the line to install fiber in Big Woods. Talkie had submitted a permit application on Sept. 28 and a subsequent revision on Sept. 30, at the request of the County.
Between Sept. 30 revision and the commissioners’ meeting on Oct. 13, ThinkBig had been approved to wire the area before Talkie and also received the $100,000 subsidy from the Coronavirus Relief Fund.
“There needs to be a discussion on the permitting,” said Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian at the Oct .20 meeting. “We need to be specific in this permitting process and I think it’s worth a few minutes of our time to discuss it to see if we can try and get it right for everybody.”
Fithian said that having more than one carrier compete to wire the county “was good for the people.”
“We were making the investment in Big Woods on our own, like we’ve done everywhere else at no cost to the county,” said Talkie Co-founder Andre DeMattia. “But now another provider gets moved to the front of the line in the permitting process and gets a $100,000 subsidy on top of it. I don’t know how this benefits the county or the customers.”
DeMattia said that the county should go to a competitive bidding process if the County needs to subsidize areas of special concern.
ThinkBig was previously awarded $353,000 from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to wire the areas of Golts and Georgetown, Talkie lamented the fact that they were not given the opportunity to bid in those areas.
“I think that maybe we haven’t done right in the past when we’ve been approving money for one and not the other,” Mason acknowledged at the Oct. 20 meeting.
In an interview on Wednesday Fithian said the commissioners are committed to eliminating any confusion about the permitting process going forward.
“It is our goal to make sure Kent County residents have the best Internet for our students, residents and workforce,” Fithian said.
“The Government can’t be in the business of picking winners and losers,” said Commissioner Bob Jacob. “We have to make sure that companies seeking to provide Internet in the county have equal access to the process.”