Columbus approves Meridiam contract

Columbus has entered into a long-term contract for internet infrastructure.

The Columbus Board of Works approved a master development agreement with Meridiam Infrastructure North America Corp. on Tuesday. According to City Director of Finance, Operations and Risk Jamie Brinegar, this is a 30-year agreement.

“They will bring fiber to the home,” said Brinegar. “Their goal is to reach 85% of our community, a minimum of 85%.”

While Meridiam had initially hoped to complete the project in about 18 months, it will take longer because the company is hoping to use some of Duke Energy’s utility poles. There are restrictions on how many pole requests they can make per month statewide, and Columbus isn’t the only municipality working with Meridiam. Bloomington has already approved an master development agreement with the company; Shelbyville, Martinsville and Bartholomew County are expected to follow.

However, Brinegar added that Columbus has “a little bit of a leg up” because it already has 13 miles of conduit that the company will be able to access under the agreement.

“We have internet service in Columbus and Bartholomew County now, but this will provide for one-gig (gigabit),” said Mayor Jim Lienhoop. “… One-gig symmetrical, they call it. And they indicate to us that they will make sure that that is available to 85% or more.”

He added that the city is in a sort of unofficial partnership or “cooperation” with the county and other cities that will be working with Meridiam.

According to City Director of Administration and Community Development Mary Ferdon, Meridiam will not be the actual internet service provider but will instead contract with a provider.

When asked what the cost would be to the community, Brinegar replied, “At this time there is no cost. What we’ve discussed with them is we would look into providing a connection from the line to the home for some of the lower-income areas in our community as a way to assist with getting fiber to the home.”

“If somebody provides the cable to your street, there’s a hookup (cost) — $100, $200,” explained Ferdon. “So you, as a homeowner would pay for it. … What we’re looking into is how we can help lower income individuals who couldn’t afford that $200.”

Additionally, as part of Meridiam’s agreement with its provider, low income individuals will have access to internet speeds of 250 megabits per second or more. The cost of 250 mbps speed will match support provided by a federal grant of $30 a month, allowing low-income households to obtain the service at no cost.

Brinegar noted that the county is contributing $4 million to its own project with Meridiam, partly because of the distance between residences outside of city limits. According to local officials, the sum comes from the the county’s American Rescue Plan allotment.

This level of contribution is not included in the city’s contract. However, Lienhoop said that he does expect Meridiam to request a tax abatement from city council in the near future.

“I’m assuming this kind of development makes us that much more competitive as we try to attract the remote worker,” said board member John Pickett.

“It’s part of the motivation,” agreed Lienhoop. “…It also helps with those who need to do learning remotely. We learned during the pandemic that there were a number of households that didn’t have adequate speed to allow for their students to learn at home.”