Muskingum Co. investor launches profit-sharing rural broadband service

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OhioTT's LTE fixed wireless antennas
Darren Downing and Tim Sword install OhioTT's LTE fixed wireless antennas in Somerset, Ohio. (Gail Keck photo)

For years, internet service providers have promised to extend affordable broadband throughout Ohio’s rural areas, but for Megan Kvamme, it’s not happening fast enough.

Last year, she launched a company, Ohio Transparent Telecom, or OhioTT, to improve access in rural areas, using fixed wireless connections. Kvamme and her husband, Mark, are venture capitalists, who often work from their Muskingum County home. Although they have reliable broadband service themselves, many of their neighbors do not.

Kvamme recognized the extent of the problem in the spring of 2020 when she was running errands in Zanesville.

“We would see people with children sitting in parking lots,” she said. “They were sitting at Wendy’s or Starbucks so their kids could get wifi.”

Seeing other families struggle with online schooling during the COVID pandemic led the Kvammes to look for a way to help.

“It really weighed on our minds and our hearts,” Meagan said.

Ryan Collins, special projects manager-broadband coordinator for the Buckeye Hills Regional Council, said fixed wireless systems, like the one OhioTT is using, provide a good stopgap for people who cannot yet get fiber-based connections.

“There are a lot of people in pain now due to lack of access,” he said. Increased demand has created a backup in fiber production, he added. “These companies that offer fast, short-term solutions will be vital to bridging the digital divide before fiber can be connected to our residents’ homes.”

Lacking connections

OhioTT's LTE fixed wireless antennas
Lonnie Barwick prepares to install OhioTT’s LTE fixed wireless antennas on a water tower in the village of Somerset, Ohio. (Gail Keck photo)

The Federal Communications Commission has set the minimum standard for high-speed broadband at 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 mbps upload speed.

More than 700,000 homes in Ohio do not have internet access that meets that standard, according to data collected by Connecting Appalachia, an advocacy organization working on expanding broadband access. Of those 700,000 homes, at least 340,000 have no connection at all.

In Ohio’s Appalachian region, nearly 253,000 homes lack high-speed broadband. In some rural areas, people can’t get access because no providers offer service where they live, Kvamme said. But in other cases, the access that is available is simply too expensive.

“People say, ‘Gee, I just can’t pay $100 a month,'” she said.

Profit sharing

Kvamme is working to solve both the accessibility and affordability problems with OhioTT. Seventy percent of company profits will be returned to subscribers, once equipment and operating costs are covered.

OhioTT is also working in partnership with the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, which will receive 10 percent of the company profits.

Cara Dingus Brook, the president and chief executive officer of the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, said the partnership with OhioTT is an efficient way for the foundation to address the region’s lack of broadband access.

Last year, the foundation used emergency funds to distribute 663 mobile hotspots to libraries and set up around 100 Wi-Fi hubs so people could access the internet during the COVID pandemic — however, she said, those efforts didn’t solve the underlying problems: “We knew we wanted to do more.”

The Foundation for Appalachian Ohio promotes prosperity in Ohio’s 32 Appalachian counties by focusing on five pillars of prosperity: education, health and human services, arts and culture, community and economic development, and environmental stewardship.

In today’s world, lack of broadband access affects each of those pillars, Brook said. “It holds back everything.”

When possible, the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio prefers to jump-start projects in ways that won’t require endless fundraising to maintain the projects. For instance, the foundation set up a mobile clinic to provide vision care and eyeglasses for children, and now the project is sustained with Medicaid funds.

The foundation’s involvement with OhioTT is a similar approach to addressing the region’s need for better internet connections, Brook said. Besides extending broadband access, OhioTT’s profit sharing will benefit the foundation down the road, she explained. “It’s also putting funds into solving other problems.”

Pilot project

OhioTT finalized an agreement to install fixed wireless antennas on a water tower in Somerset, Ohio, in July. The company launched a pilot project in early August and is extending service as demand grows.

Tom Johnson, the mayor of Somerset, said he has been looking for ways to improve broadband access in his community for years, but companies haven’t been willing to invest in extending fiber into sparsely populated rural areas. OhioTT’s wireless connections are a way to fill the gaps.

Even in areas where service is currently available, the cost is $68 a month or more.

“That prices a lot of rural people out of getting it,” Johnson said.

OhioTT’s base plan is priced at $29 a month for a minimum of 25 mbps. That makes service affordable for more families and the company’s commitment to profit sharing could bring prices down, even more, he added. “This is a whole new business model that I’m really excited about.”

The village of Somerset made a simple agreement with OhioTT to allow the company space for antennas on the water tower, in exchange for free internet for the village offices, Johnson said. “I wanted to come up with a solution that was as easy as it could get, so it could be replicated in other small towns too.”

Technology advances

Fixed wireless systems are not new, but advances in technology are improving their performance, Kvamme said. OhioTT is using massive MIMO LTE (multiple-input, multiple-output, long-term evolution). Compared to traditional fixed wireless systems, this technology offers greater speed and capacity.

Massive MIMO LTE is also able to work through obstacles such as trees that would obstruct connections for traditional fixed wireless systems. The company’s near-term goal is to sign up enough subscribers in the Somerset area to pay for the equipment and operation of the system. It will take about 250 subscribers to turn a profit for the equipment at that location. Kvamme anticipates that level will be reached in early 2022, and then the company will begin returning profits to subscribers.

Going forward, OhioTT plans to form additional partnerships in Ohio’s Appalachian counties, focusing on communities that lack broadband services.

How are you connected?

Connecting Appalachia is still seeking data to update internet access statistics and maps. Go to connectingappalachia.org to run your own speed tests, look at broadband service maps and keep up with advocacy efforts.

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Gail Keck writes from her family farm, near Raymond, Ohio, where she manages the hog and cattle enterprises. She has extensive experience writing about Ohio agriculture and is a graduate of Ohio State University. She can be reached at editorial+gkeck@farmanddairy.com or at 937-578-8534.

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