As Hardy Telecommunications nears the end of the federal portion of its effort to bring fiber-to-the-home broadband internet to county residents, the company recently celebrated its 1,000th OneNet customer.
“It’s been a tremendous amount of work, but everyone should be proud of what we’ve done so far,” said Becky Kimble, Hardy fiber-to-the-home coordinator. “A few years ago no residential homes in Hardy County had access to fiber-to-the-home technology, and today it’s available to almost 4,000 households, with OneNet reaching about 4,800 by the end of the federal project.”
The OneNet network has allowed Hardy to offer the fastest standard internet speeds in Hardy County, along with high-definition digital television. Fiber-optic connections directly to residences can deliver internet speeds far beyond what is even possible with other technology, like copper DSL, wireless or satellite.
“Fiber is the future of communications,” said Derek Barr, Hardy’s director of customer service and sales, marketing and human resources. “As internet websites and applications evolve more and more, fiber is the technology that can meet those needs. Other technologies just can’t compare to fiber, plain and simple.”
Hardy Telecommunications was able to take on the project after earning a grant and loan from the federal Rural Utilities Service Broadband Initiatives Program, part of the U.S. government’s stimulus effort to bring broadband internet to more communities. Hardy was awarded $32.6 million, of which $10 million is a loan that Hardy Telecommunications is already repaying.
The federal agency overseeing the Broadband Initiatives Program has indicated that the program will end as of June 30. Hardy is rushing to complete as much work as possible before then, with plans to continue building its OneNet fiber-to-the-home network and installing service in people’s homes completely on its own dime as its budget allows.
Derek urged customers in areas where OneNet is already available to sign up for installation as soon as possible, especially those in areas that have been open for more than six months.
“We will still be installing service after June 30, but we won’t be able to seek federal reimbursement,” he said. “It’s possible that we might have to start charging an installation fee, but we won’t know for sure until we see how everything works out.”
Hardy recently hooked up its 1,000th customer to fiber. To recognize employees’ efforts, the company celebrated with a meal prepared by employees themselves.
“It takes everyone doing their part and going the extra mile,” he said. “It’s a credit to the people I work with that they’ve responded so well to the challenge.”
Derek said Hardy has more fiber-optic network to build, but construction and installations will likely slow down from the current pace when Hardy has to foot the entire bill.
“We’ve had crews all over the county working for the past few years,” he said. “It’s been a mammoth undertaking, and RUS has required tremendous oversight. We will keep expanding as we can, but the deadline is approaching when our federal funding will be cut off.”
Hardy has encountered some obstacles along the way, Derek said. Impact studies for historical sites, changing federal regulations and right-of-way issues combined to somewhat limit the project from what was originally envisioned.
“The historical requirements hit us right at the start,” he said. “We had to do extensive studies in some areas where we were hanging fiber on existing poles and not even disturbing the ground.
“I personally didn’t expect to have right-of-way issues come into play so much,” Derek added. “There are many homes that we can’t reach simply because we were unable to gain right-of-way permission to reach them. Even when we continue to build on our own budget after the federal project, we still can’t reach those homes unless something changes.”
Some areas were taken out of the federal project because it became apparent that construction would never be completed in time to meet federal deadlines.
“We will look at our budget and build out to more areas as finances allow,” he said. “If we have an area where there is a lot of interest, we’ll see what we can do to keep construction and installations going and still meet our obligations to repay our loan requirements.”
Derek said Hardy employees throughout the project have gone above and beyond what would normally be expected.
“It’s been a monumental shift for our company, what with all the new services being offered and all of the new rules and regulations that come into play. It’s taken a great effort from everyone,” he said. “But we believe what we’re doing is very important for Hardy County’s future, to improve education for our youth and economic development opportunities for current and future residents. We think that even if you live in rural West Virginia, you deserve the same internet speeds and services that urban residents get. That’s what this entire project has been about.”