County closer to broadband coverage goal

With four more towers set to be complete before year’s end, officials say the majority of Washington County will have access to high-speed Internet.

Previously unserved areas in Beverly, Belpre, Little Hocking and Newport are among those who now have high-speed Internet access through a county-wide project to increase Internet accessibility for residents and businesses.

Marietta-based Internet service provider Smart Networks has been installing equipment on various towers and buildings around the county since signing an agreement with the Washington County Commissioners in August 2012.

“I think there are currently seven towers up and running. If weather cooperates, four more towers will be up and running by the end of the year,” said Washington County Commissioner Tim Irvine.

A $100,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission helped fund the equipment, which has been installed on various Multi-Agency Radio Communication System (MARCS) towers and structures around the county.

Currently Smart Networks has installed equipment on towers in Belpre, Little Hocking, Newport, Willow Island and Marietta, said Chad Henson, Smart Networks founder and chief operating officer.

“Each one of these towers has its own purpose in getting to those areas that are under-served,” said Henson.

Equipment installation for towers in Cutler, Lower Salem, Glass and Sharpsburg in Athens County is expected for later this month, he added.

“Our original goal in August 2012 was we’d have all the MARCs done by December 2013 and we’re going to hit that deadline,” said Henson.

That means the ring of towers that will encircle Washington County will be installed by the end of the year, providing high-speed Internet access to most county residents, he said.

The company also plans on building out from the existing towers in 2014, adding new smaller towers that will receive service from the larger towers and push that service out to even more remote regions, said Henson.

However, because of Washington’s hilly topography, there will always be some customers that can not access the high-speed Internet option, said Irvine.

“This system is never going to be able to reach everybody, …but our goal is to get to as many as we can,” he said.

More than 200 customers are already making use of the service and many more are on the list to receive installation. Installations are being scheduled this week for customers in Newport, he added.

Smart Networks is currently charging $49.95/month and up for Metro Ethernet business service and $29.95 to $59.95 for 4G WiMax residential service, but those prices are subject to change.

Beyond equipment, the original $100,000 grant also covered engineering studies to ensure the integrity of the towers and around $20,000 went to Washington-Morgan Community Action for a program with the initial intent to provide computers and help defer the cost of Internet service for low-income families.

However, the scope of Community Action’s Broadband Program changed because of lack of interest in the free computer program, said Community Action Director David Brightbill.

“The commissioners changed the contract with us and what we’re doing now is we’ve purchased modems,” he said.

The modems are a piece of equipment that needs to be installed in homes in order to make them compatible for broadband service.

“When the customers need modems, Smart Network is providing them for free,” explained Brightbill.

Customers whose only options were previously satellite and dial-up Internet are the only ones eligible for the modems. Customers who can access high speed Internet through another provider but switch to Smart Networks are not eligible for a free modem, said Brightbill.

So far 33 of the free modems have been installed and another 17 are scheduled to be installed.

Brightbill estimated Community Action will ultimately be able to provide 170 to 175 modems through its portion of the grant.

The Internet expansion project is important because of how integral Internet service is in people’s daily lives, said Irvine.

“In today’s world, high-speed Internet is important for economic development, education, and so many things in our everyday life. It’s important to have as many people as possible have access to that,” he said.