An internet service provider is planning to expand broadband access in Jay County.
Before doing so, it needs to get an idea of where its transmitters could be stationed.
Watch Communications, a sister company of Portland-based Community Fiber Solutions, is gathering data on “vertical assets” in an effort to design a grid to extend internet service, especially in areas of the county where broadband is not currently available.
“Watch is already aware of all the really tall stuff in the county,” said Travis Richards, executive director of Jay County Development Corp.
“They’re looking for stuff in the range of 80 to 150 feet to see what’s out there.
“If we don’t have structures, they’ll also be looking potentially for ground where they can build towers.”
Watch is asking Jay County landowners who have such structures, like grain legs or silos, to fill out a one-page form to provide some basic information. (Forms are available at the JCDC office, 118 S. Meridian St., Portland, or by emailing Tony McAhren of Watch at firstname.lastname@example.org or Richards at email@example.com.) The structures would potentially be used to mount equipment for providing internet service.
Transmitters reach a range of 4 to 6 miles, but must have an unobstructed direct line in order to provide services.
“Grain legs make up most of our antennae locations across our territory,” said McAhren during a presentation Tuesday at the Jay County Farm Bureau annual meeting. “Since this is a line-of-sight technology, the more vertical assets we can partner with in each county the more angles we can get to people.”
The company is also interested in land — a quarter-acre would be required — on which it might be able to construct a tower if there are areas where existing structures are not sufficient.
Landowners who allow the use of their structures are typically compensated with free internet service to one or more locations on their property.
Richards noted that he is also helping Watch work with Jay County REMC and Indiana Michigan Power on agreements to allow the company to run fiberoptic lines on existing utility poles rather than having to bury them underground. The infrastructure would require fiberoptic lines to be run to transmitters.
The push to expand broadband internet access in Jay County is part of phase II of the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund initiative. It involves $2 billion in funding for internet service providers to build broadband infrastructure in areas of the country that are “unserved or underserved.” Areas of need identified by the FCC include most of Madison, Pike and Jefferson townships, a chunk of the northwest corner of the county and some other smaller pockets.
Watch Communications, under parent Benton Ridge Telephone Company, was among the bidders in the FCC’s reverse auction last month and obtained contracts for all of the eligible area in Jay County as part of its $52.4 million in purchases in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois. It is now required to build the infrastructure to serve those areas in six years, and will receive its payments from the FCC over a 10-year period. The company’s goal is to complete the process in four years, said Frank Glaszner, vice president of sales and marketing for Watch, with Jay County at the front of the line.
“They are trying to line up a few key areas and get them done faster as kind of bright points or pilot areas,” said Richards. “And they have identified Jay County as one of those.”
Indiana’s Next Level Connections program that was recently announced has committed another $100 million to expanding broadband access. Watch plans on applying for funding for the designated areas in Jay County, which like the FCC sections focus on the southern and northwest sections of the county.
Jay County is attractive to Watch as a pilot area for a variety of reasons, said Glaszner.
One is the Portland location of Community Fiber Solutions, which already provides fiberoptic internet service to Jay County Hospital, Jay County Sheriff’s Office and others. (The Commercial Review is also a CFS customer.)
The importance of the manufacturing, agriculture and healthcare sectors is also a key factor.
Glaszner also credited Jay Schools superintendent Jeremy Gulley, saying Watch began meeting with Jay School Corporation officials after local school safety efforts garnered national attention. Those meetings left Glaszner surprised that there are areas where high-speed internet access is not available.
“Not coming from rural America myself, this, to me, I couldn’t fathom,” he said.
Plans for service in Jay County include providing a dedicated portion of bandwidth for students. So, if a household had Watch internet services, a student would be guaranteed a percentage of the bandwidth when logging on with their approved devices. (The company is also working a subsidy program for low-income families to receive internet services for their school-age children.)
Watch is also working on a “royalty agreement” in which Jay Schools would receive a percentage of profits from new local internet subscribers to be used for school safety and technology initiatives.
“The idea is, how can you think creatively with public-private partnerships to solve community goals and school goals at the same time,” said Gulley, adding that he expects an e-learning policy to be in effect for Jay Schools next year. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.
“I think everybody recognizes (high-speed internet is) an essential thing for a rural community to survive and flourish in the future.”
Richards noted that while the FCC contracts only require Watch to cover certain areas of the county, the company is interested in expanding service to the county as a whole.
From an economic development perspective, he said that could be a game-changer because of the importance of internet access for businesses and families alike.
“It is super attractive to people,” he said. “We talk about trying to pull people back to this county who have moved away or have never lived here before. The more I talk to people, the more I hear about, ‘We built a house in such and such spot because we could get internet here and we couldn’t 2 miles over.’ So that’s kind of dictating a lot of where people live.”