Broadband expansion mulled

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Belmont County commissioners are exploring ways to expand broadband internet access.

The county has entered an agreement with Agile Networks, a provider of hybrid fiber wireless broadband data networks, to investigate establishing greater broadband access.

The intent of the project is to increase availability of high-speed internet services to the residents and businesses within the community. Agile will develop its design and construction plans during the next 60 days and will produce initial coverage maps depicting areas where services will be available.

“I am pleased that we are about to partner with Agile. Our goal is to be proactive with private sector utilities in an effort to provide all of our residents/businesses with affordable and good internet service,” Commissioner Mark Thomas said, adding thanks to the Belmont County Port Authority for its efforts in furthering economic development. “The commissioners, in working with our port authority, have been proactive in finding partners who will provide our residents first, and our commercial businesses second, increased, better, more affordable access to broadband internet.

“Our goal is to have as much internet service to the county as we possibly can,” Thomas continued. “Affordable and usable internet service … What we’re trying to target first are the more rural areas of the county.”

He said Agile would begin by assessing the county’s vertical assets, such as water tanks that could be used hold equipment to expand internet service.

“As we continue to grow, and if we want to continue to grow at the rate we want to do it, this piece of infrastructure is just as important as roads, bridges, water and sewer,” Thomas said. “The port authority deserves to get a lot of credit for bringing us together with these gentlemen.”

Expansion beyond these initial coverage maps is anticipated through further access to privately owned vertical assets, such as grain silos, water towers, communication towers and other structures.

Kyle Quillen, founder and chief technical officer of Agile, called this a valuable first step.

“What we bring to the county is a significant infrastructure that we already have established here, as well as a proven track record of facilitating rural broadband development,” he said, adding that internet service often leads to greater prosperity. “Houses have been sold, doctors have moved into counties, businesses have increased their workforce. … I think this is the right move for the county, and we look forward to working with you.”

Vince Little, vice president of operations, added that Agile has access to three public safety communication towers in Belmont County.

“There’s three 911 towers that are owned by the county. We’ll gain access to those and design the microwave technology to service those towers, connect those towers together,” he said, adding that the county-owned water towers will also be used.

Little said the maps Agile will produce in 60 days will specify the areas it will be able to serve and those that will require additional infrastructure. He pointed out such concerns as hillsides and valleys, which complicate service distribution.

“The coverage expands with the more vertical assets we can gain access to,” he said. “The agreement today covers county-owned assets. There are other assets that are owned by townships, owned by other small municipalities,” he said. “If you’re a farmer and you have a grain silo you’re willing to make available, we are willing to work with the owner of that private vertical asset.”

The cost of the project will be determined and presented with the mapping.

Port Authority Director Larry Merry noted the advantages.

“From an economic development standpoint … Belmont County can grow,” Merry said, adding that while St. Clairsville, Barnesville and the communities along the Ohio River have internet service, other areas stand to gain from increased access. “People will be moving to those communities. Businesses will be locating, and they’re going to be locating in areas that right now aren’t adequately served.”

Merry added that internet service has become indispensable.

“You hear stories of (students) driving to the top of a hill and doing homework in the car so they can have internet service, or going to a business establishment so that they can do their homework or send their homework in. This is one step of making Belmont County competitive and making it a welcome place for people moving here to build homes.”

“It is occurring,” Dutton agreed, adding that wider broadband access was a key point of the board’s economic development plan. He pointed out that in this interconnected world, students often find themselves competing with classrooms on the other side of the world. He added that other professionals who have moved away from the area may return if connectivity is available.

“We have meetings with companies all across the county from retention standpoints, from expansion … meeting with different service providers including Agile to see what kind of partnerships can take place to provide services to our residences and our businesses, the ones we have now and the ones we may have down the road,” Dutton said.

“Increasing broadband access is a real issue that rural counties across the nation continue to face, particularly in Appalachia,” Dutton said. “As technology advances, so does the need for greater access. In Belmont County, we have been looking at all potential avenues to better future development. This partnership with Agile Networks is a prime example of those efforts.”

“Agile has proposed a compelling public-private partnership model to help address the broadband gap to our Belmont County residents. The implementation will be vital for the economic development in our community,” Commissioner Josh Meyer said.

For more information, call the board of commissioners at 740-699-2155.

In other matters, John White, a Flushing resident and write-in candidate for Flushing Township Trustee, thanked the commissioners for installing the new sidewalk in front of the Flushing senior center. He pointed out the improved appearance and said the new surface eliminates tripping and falling hazards.