A $100,000 award from Kent County’s Coronavirus Relief Fund for ThinkBig Networks to provide high speed fiber optic in the community of Big Woods will most likely be rescinded by the Kent County Commissioners — because Talkie Communications had already sought a permit to connect the neighborhood at no cost to the county.
“It doesn’t matter who gets the work,” said Commissioner Ron Fithian in an interview prior to the Oct. 20 Commissioners’ meeting. “If these companies are willing to compete and make their own investments in these areas that need Internet service, the better it is for the county’s rate payers and our budget.”
Kent County IT Director Scott Boone requested the funds at the Oct. 13 Commissioners’ meeting to lay fiber optic cable in Big Woods.
But when Commissioner President Tom Mason asked about Talkie’s willingness to invest their own money to expand broadband in the county, Boone replied that he was unaware of any providers that had applied for permits going to Big Woods.
“From what I know at this time there are no plans for any provider to go in this area,” Boone replied.
But Talkie Communications co-founder Andre DeMattia said he found it hard to believe that his company’s permit request on Sept. 29 for Big Woods was not known to Boone prior to the Oct. 13 Commissioners’s meeting.
The Kent Pilot obtained information that ThinkBig submitted its permit request to the County on Oct. 1 and received approval on Oct.8. But Talkie was shown to have a submittal date of Oct. 13, with approval on that same day.
DeMattia said the dates for his submittal are incorrect and that he had a meeting with the county roads department on Sep. 30, the day after submitting his permit request, to physically go over the site plan. The county asked for revisions to the site plan and Talkie made the revisions and resubmitted that day.
“At no time since our last meeting with the county on Sept. 30 did we think anything was wrong with our permit — after we resubmitted the revisions the County asked for on Sept. 30,” he said.
When Talkie learned that ThinkBig’s permit was approved first they contacted the county on Oct. 9 expressing unfairness in the process and the need to get an attorney involved to rectify the matter and bring more transparency and fairness to the permitting system.
On Monday Oct. 12, Boone contacted Talkie requesting a meeting for Wednesday Oct. 14. In that meeting Boone asked DeMattia why Talkie was trying to service the same areas as Think Big.
“We go where the customers ask us to go,” DeMattia said. “And we believe in fair competition.”
DeMattia said discussions from the Oct. 14 meeting with Boone led him to believe that Boone was aware of their permit request prior to the Commissioners’ meeting.
He believes Talkie’s permits have been held up by the county to give ThinkBig Networks the upper hand in expanding Internet access in the county.
“We believe we’ve been held up in seven areas so far by bureaucratic resistance to our presence here in the county, which has allowed ThinkBig to get into these areas first,” DeMattia said.
For roughly five years now access to high speed Internet for residents of Kent County has been a top priority of the Kent Commissioners — and backed by $7 million in local taxpayer support.
Talkie also said they never received approval for a permit in Georgetown they submitted on June 29. But ThinkBig was approved over two months later on Sept. 3 and received $40,000 from Kent County’s Coronavirus Relief Fund for the project.
“We were informed by Boone in May that there was no money for fiber in the COVID Fund,” DeMattia said.
Talkie said they began 18 months ago laying fiber in Kent County and now have over 700 customers who like their service.
“We just want to compete fairly in the county,’”DeMattia said.
He said the company was not looking for special treatment or subsidies.
“But we do want a chance to actually bid on work when the county has specific needs somewhere,” he said.