Sandyville Broadband Project seeks customers: Grant offers low rate, free installation

Suzette Lowe
Equipment, funded by a Community Development Block Grant and the Jackson County Commission, provides fast internet service to the Sandyville area.

If you build it, they will come.

This was the premise behind the funding of the Sandyville Broadband Project. Provided by a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), with additional funds from the Jackson County Commission, the existing communication tower provides fast, affordable internet service to residents of that part of the county.

Surprisingly, a wave of new customers for the service provided by RT21.NET has not materialized. Currently only 12 customers have opted to join.

Luke Peters, coordinator of the grant through the Mid-Ohio Valley Regional Council, said it is unclear why people have not taken advantage of something that is reliable and affordable.

“The cost of $55 a month and no installation fee should have encouraged potential customers,” he said. “It’s hard to understand why Sandyville isn’t jumping on this opportunity.”

In 2016, when the state of West Virginia decided it would allow the CDBG to add broadband to its traditional funding of sewer and water expansion, Peters said rural Sandyville seemed like the perfect fit. A door-to-door survey showed that the area met household income standards to qualify to apply and supported the need of households unserved and underserved by current providers. In addition, recent completion of a county-owned communication tower provided an existing location from which to provide wireless broadband to the area.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic greatly increased the needs of both students and adults to work safely and efficiently from home,” said Peters, “Sandyville residents expressed frustration with opportunities missed because of poor internet service.”

With the grant funds of $137,500 and the additional $49,979 in local county funds, the Sandyville Broadband Project was publicly bid in late 2019. The winning bidder was a Jackson County company, RT21.NET, owned by Fairplain resident Mark R. Fowler.

Despite the pandemic causing slowdown of equipment availability, customers were ready to be connected in November 2020. The goal was to bring broadband to around 100 households. The available download speed is 116 to over 130 megabits per second (Mbps), far exceeding the minimum standard of 25 Mbps set by the Federal Communications Commission.

Customers who have signed up for this internet option have expressed great satisfaction with the speed and service.

“My family was using DSL before,” Matt Anderson said. “We couldn’t watch our children’s sports when they were live-streamed during the pandemic because of buffering issues. Now with the internet service we have, we can stream three different shows on our phones and tablets. We also had poor cell reception but now we actually use Wi-Fi calling.”

Customer service is something that Fowler says his company strives to do well.

“Our RT21.NET’s software checks each customer connection every 15-30 seconds to ensure connectivity, so we can quickly be aware of any issues,” he said. “That, along with power backup at the tower, means very rare internet outages.”

Anderson can testify about the quick support.

“I had to unplug the router from the wall so it could go in a surge protector,” he said. “My Wi-Fi naturally stopped for a couple of minutes to reboot. Mr. Fowler texted me later to make sure the issue wasn’t on RT21’s end. That kind of care is really rare nowadays.”

Peters explained that the Jackson County Commission has provided logistical and monetary support for the Sandyville Broadband project.

“The pricing of $55 a month and free installation may not be available past the end of the grant period which is June 30,” Peters said. “We hope the grant can be extended for a short amount of time, but there’s absolutely no guarantee.”

The county has earmarked funds to connect the goal of 100 customers.

“If people don’t sign up, that money will be used for other projects,” Peters said.

For information, call or text 440-782-1638 or visit https://rt21.net/sandyville.