It appears New Era Broadband is out and three other companies are in the running to be Washington County's wireless Internet provider.
According to county information technology director Eric Skomra, the front runner is Smart Networks, a local company that stepped up while New Era Broadband was coming up against financial issues.
"(The county) had sent out a request to four different companies that were interested in the project and three of the four reserved a time to give presentations. New Era did not," Skomra said.
Athens-based New Era Broadband had requested that the county commissioners serve as a guarantor of a $500,000 loan for the project that would bring Internet service to places in the county where it isn't currently available. The commissioners rejected the request and New Era had not been able to come up with other funding.
The other two companies to give presentations were Agile Networks of Canton and CUE Band Wireless of Norwalk. Skomra said none of the three companies had shown interest in the project prior to February when New Era Broadband was first being looked at to provide the service. The three newly-interested companies have also not expressed concern that financing would be an issue, he said.
"We have narrowed it down to a single provider we would like to proceed with but we are checking references and getting some background information on the company," said Skomra, adding that Smart Networks and its sister company, SMC Communications, being based in Marietta in no way has influenced the county's decision.
"I don't mean to imply that they are a shoo-in. We still have to get a lot of information," he said. "But we are excited to find someone local. It takes customer service to a whole new dimension."
County commissioner Cora Marshall echoed Skomra remarks that choosing a local company would be beneficial to everyone. She also said that, regardless of which company is ultimately chosen, there will be no financial obligation by the county.
"The commissioners are looking for a wireless Internet provider to deploy affordable Internet service with acceptable speeds to our citizens and rural businesses without committing the county to backing any company financially," she said. "The county's only involvement will be leasing the MARCS towers."
The commissioners have secured access to 10 state-owned Multi-Agency Radio Communications System towers, which are used by police and other agencies and are capable of providing wireless high-speed Internet access. They had asked for and were granted a 12-month extension from the June 30 deadline to secure a provider.
Marshall said she expects a contract to be offered in a week to 10 days. She said the commissioners are excited about the prospects for the future if the county goes ahead with Smart Networks, including VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) and IPTV (Internet protocol television).
Attempts to contact Smart Networks, SMC Communications and owner Chad Henson Tuesday were unsuccessful.