As officials with New Era Broadband continue to search for funding for a broadband Internet project in Washington County, the county commissioners are communicating with other companies that already have funding.
Washington County commissioners have decided to deny a formal request from New Era Broadband to serve as the guarantor of a $500,000 loan for the project.
"I think this project can be completed without the county obligating taxpayers' funding towards it," said commissioner Cora Marshall. "Whenever you co-sign on a loan you're obligating the county to pay for something that if the WISP (wireless Internet service provider) or vendor would default, then the county would be obligated to pay that."
Jerry Bibbee, a partner with Athens-based New Era Broadband, said knowing that the commissioners don't want to commit any taxpayer money to the project, he thought asking them to co-sign a loan was a good alternative.
"We need the commissioners or a money angel from some place to come in and guarantee the loan," he said. "It would make it easier to get it done and get it done in a more expeditious manner as opposed to doing it a little piece at a time."
In an effort to establish wireless broadband Internet service in areas where it doesn't exist, the commissioners secured access to 10 state-owned Multi-Agency Radio Communications System (MARCS) towers in and near the county. The towers, used by police and other agencies to communicate with portable radios, are capable of providing wireless high-speed Internet access with the addition of a few antennas.
Countywide Internet project
Athens-based New Era Broadband continues to search for funding for the project, aimed at providing wireless broadband Internet service for Washington County residents who don't currently have it.
The Washington County Commissioners have decided not to serve as the guarantor of a $500,000 loan for the project, as requested by New Era Broadband.
Three additional wireless Internet service providers have expressed interest in the project. They have all indicated they have the financial means to carry it out.
Additionally, about 25 water providers in the county have agreed to allow a wireless Internet service provider (WISP) to place equipment on their towers so a signal can be obtained from them.
"Something important for citizens to realize is the commissioners have done everything they can to attract a company and start providing service to the citizens," said Washington County's information technology director, Eric Skomra. "It's up to the company to come forward with the funding they need to do the project and that's been the stance from the get go. What the commissioners are offering is the opportunity to use the state owned MARCS towers through a sub-lease of the towers."
Although county officials released requests for proposals to more than 60 WISP companies in the spring of last year, New Era Broadband is the only company that has offered a promising solution to this point.
Skomra said he is encouraged by the fact that three additional companies recently expressed interest in the project.
"We have not received or been given any demonstrations or any presentations yet from those companies as to what their delivery time frame would be or what their service offerings would be or what would be provided by them," Skomra said. "Each of them have indicated they have their own funding to provide the services, so each of them have said that's not going to be a hurdle for them."
Finding funding for the project has been a hurdle for New Era Broadband. The company has launched a very similar project in Meigs County, but Bibbee pointed out that project was funded with money provided through a U.S Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service Grant, something the company can only get once.
As a result, the company is trying to secure funding for the Washington County project through local banks.
With the commissioners not willing to co-sign a loan, Bibbee said the company will continue to look for a local investor or local bank to back the project.
Skomra said the three companies that recently expressed interest are based in Ohio, but he declined to provide the names of the companies.
He said he remains optimistic that the project will come to fruition.
"If New Era is able to bring forward a financed solution they would be high on the list for being able to provide the services," Skomra said. "To date New Era has gone out of their way to try to understand the business opportunity and try to define it and provide a viable solution which is what we expected all the other providers to do, it just turned out it wasn't time for the other providers and...it's very encouraging to have these other providers interested."
The county was recently approved to receive $100,000 in Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) funds which would be used for labor and materials for the project, Bibbee said. He said that is the only funding that has been secured so far for the project.
Bibbee said county residents interested in getting wireless broadband Internet service can call 866-937-9991 to express interest. He said so far more than 700 calls have been received.
"The response has been great. I'm very, very pleased with the response," Bibbee said. "There's an appetite for this service throughout the county."