USDA announces grant to ETC for broadband expansion

News
USDA ETC ReConnect Grant Award

EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – “We are extremely proud to partner with Ellijay Telephone Company to expand broadband access,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Georgia State Director Joyce White as she announced a $4.4 million investment grant into Gilmer County through ETC.

Holding a celebratory ceremony on February 7, 2020, ETC shareholders, administrators, and a group of employees were joined by numerous officials from Georgia’s State Government and the USDA to both announce the award and celebrate the accomplishment.

House Speaker David Ralston speaks at the ETC's ReConnect Grant Award Ceremony

House Speaker David Ralston speaks at the ETC’s ReConnect Grant Award Ceremony.

As a part of the USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program, ETC’s application over the last year has “persevered,” as said by White during the ceremony. The grant they receive will provide $4.4 million to support the construction of 90 miles of fiber-optic cable infrastructure in Gilmer County.

Jason Smith, COO of ETC, said the service extension is going to be providing “1 Gig Fiber Broadband.” He went on to add, “The total project is estimated at $5.9 million, $4.4 [million] of that will be provided by the grant and almost $1.5 [million] is provided by ETC.”

The program is set to incorporate 2,159 households, two community facilities, and an Educational facility. Additionally, there have been 25 businesses and 24 farms pre-subscribed to the service.

House Speaker David Ralston spoke at the ceremony about the great need for better internet and high-speed broadband connections as the foundation of improvements in education, transportation, and healthcare. He noted key points like telemedicine and farming as specific examples. Ralston threw his support behind the application with a letter of support for ETC during the application process. He said he wanted to salute ETC’s efforts and called the program a part of efforts to revitalize rural Georgia.

State Senator Steve Gooch speaks at the ETC's ReConnect Grant Award Ceremony.

State Senator Steve Gooch speaks at the ETC’s ReConnect Grant Award Ceremony.

State Sen. Steve Gooch also wrote a letter of support for ETC’s application. He spoke at the ceremony of the need for the internet’s infrastructure for industry and economic development as well. Gooch said attracting new businesses and industry are among the first question when companies scout new locations. He said questions about providers, speed, reliability, and hubs are always among the initial questions interested parties would ask.

Gooch also echoed Ralston’s words about education as he shared his experience from his travels around the state hearing from community leaders. He said they told him about families in their communities when kids were sent home with homework to be done online. Parents would have to drive the kids back into town to a library or business with wifi to complete their homework assignments. Gooch said responding to these challenges is easier when private companies partner with the public interests to achieve success. Gooch said, “This is one success story, but we need thousands of others just like it.”

Parts of those challenges include the costs of preliminary and ground-work of projects like this do not compare to the number of houses or facilities reached. ETC’s Jason Smith noted these challenges as he said the estimated costs of this project reach $65,000 per mile. He said, “When you consider that many of our most rural areas have less than five homes per mile, it is easy to see why a grant plays such a vital role in broadband deployment.”

Jason Smith, COO of ETC, speaks at the ETC's ReConnect Grant Award Ceremony.

Jason Smith, COO of ETC, speaks at the ETC’s ReConnect Grant Award Ceremony.

Smith went on to say that the grant award is an early step in the project. With funding, he wants ETC to move forward quickly but said the project will not happen overnight. With an estimated timeline of five years to complete the expansion. However, Smith said that ETC is hoping to reach goals to reduce that time by one year if possible.

The ReConnect Program offers funding options through loans, grants, and combinations of the two in order to facilitate broadband deployment in “areas of rural America that don’t currently have sufficient access to broadband,” according to the USDA’s website and ReConnect Program Informational.

In March 2018, the USDA reports that Congress provided $600 million to them to expand broadband infrastructure and services in Rural America. On December 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of his ReConnect program and the loans and grants involved. They received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in total funding.

Additionally, Perdue announced in December 2019 that the USDA will continue ReConnect through another round of applications in 2020 and will fund another $550 million through the program.

 

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Ethics and Security questioned in Gilmer Administration

News

ELLIJAY, Ga. – Citizens are questioning the Gilmer County Board of Education this week after reports have surfaced of the involvement of and connections between the school systems Superintendent, Dr. Shanna Downs, and her husband’s, Jeff Downs, career in a company that the school is now engaging to install a security system in the schools.

Jeff Downs

Jeff Downs,  Senior Vice President of Sales

While allegations pointed that Shanna Downs financially benefited from this contract between the school and the company known as Centegix, where sources say Jeff Downs serves and Senior Vice President of Sales.

FYN looked deeper into the contract and Request for Proposals (RFP) process that was headed up by Gilmer Schools Director of Technology John Call. According to hid RFP listed, the criteria of the RFP included:

1. Bidder’s total proposed price
2. Product quality/appropriateness/compatibility/performance
3. Bidder’s qualifications/experience
4. Bidder’s ability to provide support/service
5. Bidder’s warranty/maintenance
6. Proposed product meeting the district’s present needs as well as future needs through
enhancements and upgrades.

Call headed the reviews and RFP process, according to Downs, who said, “When I realized that my husband would likely accept a position with Centegix in November,  I notified the board and I placed our technology director, John Call, in charge of the competitive bidding process for the security system.  I asked that I be left completely out of the process.”

Downs further stated that Call and Stuart Sheriff, Assistant Superintendent, contacted Harbin, Hartley and Hawkins Attorneys at Law on November 12 for legal advice. As they saw no problem after Downs recusal, Downs says she informed the Board of her husband’s potential future employment with Centegix.  She says, “Mr. Call assembled a committee of building level administrators to review and score the responses to the Request for Proposals (RFPs).   Details of that process can be found in our board minutes from December 13, 2018.  Until that process was complete, I stayed unaware of the selection of the product.”

Gilmer County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shanna Downs

Downs made one further note on her husband’s involvement saying, “My husband began work with Centegix on December 3rd and will not make any commission off of the purchase.”

The RFP continued under Call and received two proposals, one from Centegix and one from ETC in Ellijay. When questioned as to why only two proposals were received, Call noted that other companies did inquire about the RFP, but never submitted a proposal. Without an official submittal, there is no record of these inquiries and their company’s interests in the request.
The RFP advertisement did reach statewide as Call publicized the request in not only the school’s website, but on the state procurement website as well. According to the Georgia Procurement Registry, they directly emailed 231 contacts over 122 companies about the RFP while also being searchable to any vendors accessing the website.
Call further stated that the full product and network that Centegix offered isn’t easily found in other places. He indicated that Centegix, LLC, together with its parent, 34ED, LLC, and affiliates Kloud-12 and Dooley Education Solutions, has done something that many companies are just beginning to get into.
It isn’t so much any individual technology they have that others don’t, according to Call, but rather the way they “marry the technology together.”
Centegix’s proposal offered an alert button system alongside classroom camera systems that operates on a singular network incorporating a campus-wide CrisisAlert System, classroom cameras, and classroom educational video capabilities. It also provides exact location information through ID Badges that hold the alert button system with configurable presses to notify emergencies on two levels, campus-wide emergencies and local individualized incidents.
ETC’s proposal offered Camera system integration and wearable IneractWear control buttons to initiate camera recording and notifications to administrators for incidents or sever emergencies requiring 911 intervention.
According to Call’s recorded scoresheets filed with Gilmer Schools, the difference between the two proposals came down to only $10,698. However, with a full 1.742 points difference, the scoring was based on the six criteria of the RFP noted earlier.
FYN has also received the individual scorecards of each of the six people on the committee to judge the RFP responses, including Ashley CoatesTiffany Boyette,  Stephanie BurnetteNicole Pike John Call, and  James Jones.
With the final vote having been taken for the security proposals in December, Call presented these results to the Board who accepted Centegix’s proposal and are already well into the installation process in every school except Gilmer Middle School and a partial install in Ellijay Primary.
The school system has decided to move forward with installing the CrisisAlert system buttons as they attach easliy to the drop ceilings and operate on battery. With the ease of removal and moving the system, they intend to transfer this system to the Clear Creek Elementary School when constructed.

Centegix Proposal:

ETC Proposal:

ETC – Alert System – RFP – Additional InformationETC – Alert System – RFP – Additional Information

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ETC – Beware of current Email Scam and Fraud – Payment Portal

Community
Dear ETC Customer,

Unfortunately, there are some who wish to exploit you through scams. More recently, we have customers reporting an email with the subject “Important Updates” that asks you to verirify your ETC setting.

Note: ETC HAS updated our Payment Portal. However scammers are trying to take advantage of our update to scam you with fake email notices.

Here is what the scam email looks like. The scammers are trying to make it look legitimate. Do not click their link.

This is a scam.

ETC wishes to remind you that it is common for malicious parties to take advantage of increased media attention of newsworthy events by implementing “spear phishing” attempts. These attempts will occur in digital ads and emails, often containing embedded links or purport to include exclusive photos or videos, prizes and other lures. These attempts are usually found on suspicious websites, or included as attachments or links in emails. However, that is not always the case. Protect yourself from these threats. Please review the following best practices:

Be wary of unsolicited attachments, even from people you know – Just because an email message looks like it came from a familiar source, malicious parties often “spoof” the return address, making it look like the message came from someone else. If you can, check with the person who supposedly sent the message to make sure it’s legitimate before opening any attachments. This also includes email messages that appear to be from your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or software vendor claiming to include patches or anti-virus software. ISPs and software vendors do not send patches or software in email.

Keep software up to date – Install software patches so that attackers can’t take advantage of known problems or vulnerabilities. Many operating systems offer automatic updates. If this option is available, you should enable it.

Trust your instincts – If an email or email attachment seems suspicious, don’t open it, even if your antivirus software indicates that the message is virus free. Attackers are constantly releasing new viruses and most likely your anti-virus software does not have a signature for it yet. Don’t let your curiosity put your computer at risk.

Save and scan any attachments before opening them – If you have to open an attachment before you can verify the source, take the following steps:

  • Be sure the signatures in your anti-virus software are up to date.
  • Save the file to your computer or a disk.
  • Manually scan the file using your anti-virus software.

Turn off the option to automatically download attachments – To simplify the process of reading email, many email programs offer the feature to automatically download attachments. Check your settings to see if your software offers the option, and make sure to disable it.

View emails in “Plain Text” – many email applications have options to view emails in “Plain Text”, which will restrict link functionalities and other unnecessary, but potentially dangerous, features in emails. If possible, choose “plain text” in your email viewing options.

Apply additional security practices – You may be able to filter certain types of attachments through your email software or a firewall. Review the programs manual for further assistance.

Remember

ETC will never ask you to provide personal or financial information. Any ads, e-mails or text messages received asking for this type of information are not from ETC/Ellijay Telephone Company and should be considered fraudulent. If you have received an e-mail or text message of this type and have concerns that your information has been breached, please contact our Technical Support Line at 800-717-3710.

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