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Broadband coming to Belmont County

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK Nicholas Hunter, CEO of Fiber Capital Partners, announces a countywide initiative to bring broadband internet access to Belmont County in the next few years.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Broadband internet may be coming to Belmont County soon, with the announcement that a fiber company and provider will be installing infrastructure.

Nicholas Hunter is CEO of Fiber Capital Partners, a fund management business that brings in private capital investment to build infrastructure in communities that lack it. He said his family business in Warren County has been active there.

“Our genesis in this project was we were seeking to really build fiber to the home internet systems for our own community, because we were not getting help from anybody else. We had been told multiple times there would be no reinvestment,” he said. “We realized that if we weren’t going to do it, nobody else was, so we went ahead and took on that onus of responsibility and decided to do it for Warren County.

“Because we had successfully rolled out fiber to the homes in our area, the question then becomes what other areas of Ohio are prime areas that need help too?”

Similar circumstances attracted them to Belmont County.

“If we do fiber to the home for every opportunity, which is between 28,000 and 34,000 connect points, which will be homes, businesses, things like that, that entire bill will be somewhere around $150 million,” Hunter said.

However, he said this project can be broken down into phases in the coming years, with investment in increments of $10 million and $20 million at a time to piece different parts together and eventually build a network for Belmont County.

The project may take five to seven years if investments are at $30 million at a time. Hunter said work would likely start in and around Belmont College.

Belmont County Port Authority Director Larry Merry said officials were looking at possible starting points and decisions will be made shortly.

“They’ve been engineering and looking at it,” Merry said. “The commissioners want to see this.”

Hunter said there would be no cost to Belmont County.

“This is a private enterprise. The idea here is that what we found in the larger market is there is really no private capital going after this opportunity,” he said, adding this is because the larger providers have control over major urban regions in Ohio.

“There was no real direction out in these rural communities like Warren and Belmont County, and we felt like it was an opportunity for private capital improvement businesses to take on that responsibility, to raise the money and to bring a full-fledged solution to counties that ultimately couldn’t pay for it themselves.”

The commissioners have long noted issues raised by their constituents about sub-par internet service, while no providers seemed motivated to invest in the system.

“That is the same facts and circumstances in Warren County,” Hunter said. “We saw those same facts in Belmont.”

Tim Berelsman, CEO of Ohio GIG, which provides service to underserved areas of Ohio, said there are vast amounts of areas lacking service.

“I saw this as an opportunity to form the rebirth of the independent operating company by establishing community-based companies that we could connect together in a wider network to aggregate volume and to share with like-minded companies,” he said.

“We’re going to build a gigabit system,” he said. This is 1,000 megabits per second when most people in the area are used to 40 to 100 megabits per second. “We’re talking about building this system around a gigabit to the residents. … It’s not going to a cell tower or going to an enterprise solution, it is actually focused on the residents first, and then by doing that we are able to provide services to the cell tower, to the schools and to the enterprise at the same time.”

Berelsman said the system has the ability to provide 10 megabits to cell towers and to improve overall infrastructure. He said 500 and 250 megabits packages will also be available.

“They can cut the cable and cut the cord and do everything over the internet without us having to worry about a congestion issue or a throttling issue and not being able to get the full experience,” he said. He also said there will be no data caps.

In terms of jobs that may be created, Berelsman said some providers employ four to six people per 1,500 subscribers.

“I think there’s potential for 28,000 subscribers plus here,” he said. “We definitely plan on creating some construction jobs early on.”

He said one of the biggest costs to such a project remains construction and putting fiber in the ground.

“In order to control our costs, we’re going to have some of our own crews, complemented with some contractors, so we’re going to create indirect jobs with at least three to four subcontractors in the area,” he said.

They are also considering working with the Belmont Career Center to create a construction company to give students work experience.

Berelsman said community support and adoption will determine how quickly they can expand the network’s reach. Optimally, he said eight projects could be ongoing simultaneously around the county.

Hunter and Berelsman said there is potential in the county, but like Warren County, the lack of quality internet access is a barrier to new businesses and schools entering the area.

“The best way to invest in a community was to build fiber infrastructure,” Hunter said. “I think that the value to a community like Belmont is actually almost incalculable. … Bringing 1,000 megabits per second download speeds to a home means you can work at home. … Telemedicine, it’s having your doctor’s checkup at home. It’s Zoom calls, it’s education from home.

“It used to be infrastructure was roads, sewer lines, waterlines and electric lines, and now probably the first thing a business asks is, ‘What’s the broadband level and service in the area?’ Broadband is just a necessity in today’s modern business world.”

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