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More broadband funding on horizon for Washington County

CHIPLEY – Washington County is set to request $3 million through the Community Development Block Grant Coronavirus (CDBG-CV) Small Cities Program to help bolster its ongoing project to make reliable broadband accessible throughout the county.

These funds would be in addition to a $1.5 million infrastructure grant recently awarded as a 50-percent match for the project from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).

The county issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) from broadband providers in September 2019, with Wildstar Networks being the sole company to respond.

The company, which is currently installing a broadband network in Walton County, is already working on the design phase throughout Washington County. County leaders say that Sunny Hills, the first area in the project plan, should be completed by this fall.

With a capital construction investment of approximately $3 million divided among four county zones, Washington County will utilize existing rights-of-way, county-owned land, and Memorandums of Understanding among area municipalities to place the necessary towers. Other funds will be used to help maintain equipment and other costs associated with the system, which will be owned by the county once the infrastructure is in place.

“Once this system is up and running, the county owns the infrastructure,” said County Administrator Jeff Massey. “[WildStar] can’t come in one day and say, ‘I’m taking my toys and going to the house.’ The county will own this equipment, so we would still have the ability to create connectivity should something happen with that relationship. Our agreement with them will protect the county and the residents; they have to deliver a certain product.”

Washington County held a public hearing Tuesday, March 9, to gather input from local residents ahead of submitting the newest funding request for the project. Public comment was heard from Washington County Veterans Service Officer Christopher Hyatt and Bonnett Pond Community Church board member James Brooks.

Hyatt says improved connectivity would mean better services for local veterans.

“When it comes to compensation and pension exams, a lot of those are online,” he said. “Not too long ago, a veteran had a three-hour exam, and I actually had to find him a space to do it [due to poor connectivity at his home]; otherwise, he would have had to sit in the Walmart parking lot for three hours. We were able to let him take the exam [at the county offices] and let him log on to the Wi-Fi, but this highlighted the need for internet access throughout our county.”

Hyatt went on to say that most veterans’ medical appointments, including for mental health, are nearly all through telemedicine due to the pandemic, and that it is difficult for some of them to access services.

“A lot of my veterans can’t even use half of what the VA offers because of not having internet,” he added.

James Brooks also addressed the county, pointing out that many of the county’s elderly are still staying home and depend on internet to not only assist with telemedicine, but to also deliver streaming services from their respective churches.

“A lot of churches had to go to live streaming during COVID, but to run a professional camera, it takes up to 5mps to upload,” he said. “While we could get there, there’s no speed consistency, so we had to rely on phones to [attempt a live stream]. The sound was awful, the picture would go in and out, but we do the best we can because it’s important to those at home. You’d be surprised at how many 80-year-olds are now on Facebook watching the church services.”

Washington County Grant Writer Karen Shaw states pre-application for the grant will be filed Monday, March 15.

This article originally appeared on Washington County News: More broadband funding on horizon for Washington County

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