Mon County Commission get update on Ring 11 of county broadband project

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Broadband expansion in Monongalia County is expected to be costly and complicated as work begins on Ring 11 out of the fourteen parts of the billion-dollar project. Firms working on the project updated the Monongalia County Commission on the engineering status of that portion of the expansion plan, which currently has conceptual designs for the “middle mile” infrastructure needed to provide broadband access to the western part of the county.

“The current wireless design can service around 80% of those homes, which is a significant amount of those homes, especially due to the terrain and some other obstacles in this part of the county,” said Lit Communities President Chris Kirkland.

Two designs for Ring 11 include the use of public rights of way and utility easements to construct twenty towers to provide up to eighty percent of the service that could be offered in the western part of the county. Each design would account for 711 homes and businesses considered “demand points,” but Kirkland says the geography of the area around Blacksville create timing conflicts between the two designs. The plan for Ring 11 would strictly use rights of way and could begin construction immediately, but would take longer to build than the other, which uses a combination of rights of way and easements and would have about a one-week difference in completion dates.

“Selecting areas of elevation, as well as redundancy,” said Kirkland on some of the factors accounted for in the design.”That way, the signal can get through the geography and through the trees and foliage to the end users,” he explained.

Kirkland also states that Ring 7 would also have to be completed in order to complete redundant coverage in the eastern portion accounted for in Ring 11.

Cost projections for engineering and the eventual construction of Ring 11 and the rest of the broadband infrastructure are expected to be approximately $25 million when supplies are gathered and shovels are in the ground. This wouldn’t include any easement agreement costs that would occur as part of the project, an area Kirkland stated the commission should strongly consider before moving forward on either proposal. Long-term costs would have the ability to be lowered if the commission chooses to use co-location leasing of the towers, which would bring a consistent revenue stream while providing broadband.

“These towers will be owned by the county if this is the route that you guys select to go,” said Kirkland on the co-location agreements. “We want you to look at this as an investment; this is an opportunity for you to have recurring revenue, as well as the backhauling that’s providing the service to them,” he said.

Approximately $10 million has already been contributed by the Monongalia County Commission, and plans are in place to seek more funding through state and federal grants. Monongalia County Commissioner Sean Sikora also stated that there will be consideration of reaching out to Marion County due to broadband coverage in Ring 11, including Grantstown, and they’ve already reached out to Preston County internet service provider Prodigi to help move things forward. Despite concerns regarding the current environment for state and federal grants, the goal is to have construction on Ring 11 begin by 2023.

“We’ve got a great team, and I’m very confident in our ability to go out and win some grants,” said Sikora. “We’re going to partner with Prodigi in Preston County, who’s been very successful in grants; we’re looking at any and all,” he said.