Washington County’s efforts to establish reliable county-wide broadband coverage was bolstered with the recently announced $1.5 million rural infrastructure grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, which was awarded as a 50-percent match for the project.
County Administrator Jeff Massey has been working to bring the project to fruition for more than a year.
“When COVID came out, it exposed us,” said Massey, “and not only us, but also other rural counties. We needed reliable internet for distance learning and telemedicine, and we just don’t have that throughout the county.”
Washington County sent out a request for proposals and soon began communication with the sole responding company, WildStar Networks, as well as with Walton County, which contracted with WildStar last May on a similar project.
“The big internet companies just will not locate in rural areas because they can’t get a return on their investment. It’s all about how many users they have,” explained Massey.
Wildstar uses a new technology for providing internet connectivity that allows signals to be reflective and reroute when hitting barriers such as buildings or trees, rather than stopping, allowing high-speed internet to be accessible to residents of more rural areas.
“Walton County was the first county in the United States to have this technology,” said Massey. “Washington County is set to be the second.”
County officials are working with cities within Washington County, as well as in the surrounding areas, to sign memorandums of understanding which would allow the company to use cell towers and similar structures as a site to locate the equipment. Massey says this would bring benefit to neighboring communities as well.
“The internet won’t just stop at the county line,” said Massey. “Cities like Bonifay, Alford, and Cottondale who are allowing towers to be used will also benefit from this service.
Currently, Washington County is in the design phase of the project, starting with mapping out where equipment can be mounted on existing cell towers and where new towers would need to be erected.
Massey says the plan is to start in Sunny Hills and move into other areas as each portion of the project is completed. Preliminary estimates project the Sunny Hills build-out to be complete by Fall.
Wausau resident, Cheryl Frankenfield, currently uses a hotspot to surf the web. She said better internet would be easier on her wallet.
“It’s a monthly thing that would be a lot less expensive and would be a lot more convenient as well,” Frankenfield said. “I think it would be a great thing for us and a good thing for our community. A lot of people are working from home as well, that would also be a big plus.”
Washington County Superintendent of Schools Joe Taylor says the completed project would not only be a win for district students, but the entire community.
“[This project] would help us tremendously,” said Taylor. “Currently, we are restricted in a lot of ways for students, and we just don’t have the capacity here for them to all have the internet service they need. When we were doing the mandated distance learning, there were real issues for students in the outlying areas.”
“There are places in this county that don’t even have phone service,” he added. “You go through dead spots. Having access to reliable internet would be a win for our school system and the whole community. We will support this project in every way.”
The county plans to seek another $3 million in federal funding to help complete the project, as well as allow for future needs such as maintenance of the system.
“It is our goal to not impact the county’s General Fund at all,” said Massey.
Residents will have the option of choosing to use the WildStar service, with estimated cost of a subscription ranging from $65-$75 a month.
WMBB contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Washington County News: Washington County invests $3 million in broadband