Benton Ridge Telephone Company can trace its roots back over 100 years to when it started out as a rural telephone company serving the Ohio community with the same name. The largest part of the company’s business now, however, is its wireless internet service provider unit known as Watch Communications, which offers service in parts of rural Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
When the company decided to bid – and ultimately won over $52 million – in the Connect America Fund II auction, its plan was to use fixed wireless for the project area. We talked recently with Greg Jarman, chief operating officer for the CAF II winner, about the company’s plans for the funding, which will be distributed to the company over a period of 10 years.
The project area includes additional areas of the three states that Watch already serves.
“By land mass, it’s an 84% of our coverage area expansion,” Jarman told us.
CAF II Winner
Watch Communications started offering fixed wireless internet about 15 years ago as a means of getting broadband to unserved or underserved communities with a lower capital investment in comparison with fiber-based options, which Benton Ridge offers through its Community Fiber Solutions unit. The company now has about 20,000 subscribers and sees take rates as high as 60% in the communities it serves.
When completed, the Watch Communications network will make service available to nearly 24,000 additional locations and if take rates are in line with what the company has seen previously, the company’s subscriber base could increase substantially.
Bids in the CAF II auction were weighted, with companies pledging to deliver higher speeds gaining an advantage. The Benton Ridge CAF II win calls for speeds of 100 Mbps downstream in some areas and 25 Mbps downstream in other areas.
For people in the project area, Jarman said, “the idea of being offered 100 megabits is mind boggling.”
Watch Communications uses a mixture of licensed and unlicensed spectrum and expects to use the CBRS band in “a lot of areas,” he noted.
Interestingly, the CAF buildout may have a side benefit for existing wireless customers currently served over older technology that doesn’t support equivalent speeds.
“We will upgrade the entire network,” Jarman said. “We won’t leave anyone behind.”
Since winning the CAF bid, representatives from Watch Communications have been visiting with people at anchor institutions in counties for which the company won funding. The goal, Jarman said, is to “understand what their needs are and what vertical assets they might have.”
Watch Communications currently has about 500 vertical assets such as water towers, cell towers and rooftops, on which the company can install its equipment.
What Watch learns from these conversations will “help drive where we might build first,” Jarman said.
The meetings, he said, have “overwhelmingly been an incredibly positive experience.”
Considering that Watch has six years to complete the CAF buildout, however, Jarman expects managing expectations to be one of the company’s biggest challenges.
Like some other CAF winners with whom we have spoken, Watch expects to hire additional employees as a result of the win. The company also might consider bidding in the remote areas auction that is expected to award funding for unserved areas that had no winner in the CAF II auction.
Jarman said he would “reserve judgment” about bidding in the next auction but that “early indications are that there would be no reason not to.”