Citynet works toward providing wireless broadband service to rural parts of Preston

KINGWOOD — Citynet has been testing the waters on providing wireless broadband service to rural areas of Preston County.

Jim Martin, with Citynet, reported on Citynet’s efforts to the Preston County Commission earlier this month.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s just when,” Martin said. “We’ve really taken it to heart and are going to try and solve some of these challenges.”

He expects about the middle of 2019 Citynet will announce services it will offer rural areas.

Citynet recently acquired a wireless internet provider in the state’s Northern Panhandle. It offered what’s called “fixed service,” Martin said. It delivers internet to a house wirelessly. The company operates by line-of-sight towers.

That means, “When you have a tower, you have to see it. If you can’t see it, you can’t get internet,” Martin explained.

He and Commissioner Craig Jennings are friends, and Jennings asked if Citynet could help provide internet to Preston County, Martin explained.

Martin said Citynet is working with Prodigi, a Preston County company. For about a year, Citynet has been operating a trial site along W.Va. 92, he said.

“We partnered up with Prodigi and got connectivity from them over at the 911 center and, working with the 911 folks, were able to put some equipment on their tower here … and then up on Laurel Mountain,” he explained.

From the Laurel Mountain tower, Citynet identified a site along W.Va. 92 near a business location, “that we could work with, that was in desperate need of internet.”

Equipment was put in a tree that had the line of sight. And, “It’s been successful,” Martin said. “Prodigi provides the internet, we provide the wireless.”

Since then, Citynet partnered with an FCC license holder, which owns a cellular frequency. With that, Citynet started two other pilot locations, in Grafton and Wheeling.

“It’s really working out well,” Martin said. “We’re getting higher speeds, we’re able to get down in valleys, inside buildings.”

Citynet is close to striking a deal with the frequency owner, he said. If the project pans out, instead of going on a roof and mounting a dish to install wireless internet, all Citynet would have to do is ship a box to the customer, who would plug it in and turn it on.

That is as long as the customer is within a three- to five-mile radius of the broadcast point.

“Hopefully the first quarter of next year we think we’re going to be able to possibly launch that service offering, at the same time working with Prodigi and identifying some areas in the county where we can work together and expand service,” Martin said.

Citynet will not compete against Prodigi, he noted.

Commissioner Don Smith said it may solve the problem of areas where it isn’t profitable for Prodigi to install wires down a road, but Citynet could serve those few people.

Another challenge, Martin said, is the State Division of Homeland Security. The department has more than 120 towers statewide and received funding to expand broadband, but the former director “wasn’t real open about allowing providers to share that network.”

The new director, Lt. Col. Michael Todorovich, is more open-minded, Martin said. Citynet and other wireless providers will meet with Todorovich next year to see how state assets can be used to expand service.

“Things are changing,” Martin said. “We’re pretty happy about it.”

Jennings said he assumed the effort would start in towns in southern Preston County and then work out. “Serving the unserved,” Commissioner Dave Price called it.

Martin said the company is working to identify more populated areas that don’t have broadband and will be doing cost analysis. It would be a challenge economically for any company, he said, but there are some grants available for a public/private partnership.

Price said the commission would offer support.

Smith said roads and broadband are the two most common problems people bring up to him.

“In West Virginia there is a digital divide happening, those that have broadband and those that don’t,” Martin said.

“Things are changing. We’re pretty happy about it. Hopefully next year I’ll be able to come back and give you an update about it. Just know that we’re trying. There’s no guarantees, but we’re trying,” Martin said.

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