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Microsoft grant will bring broadband to ‘thousands’ in Mingo

August 6, 2018

A grant winner for Microsoft’s rural broadband expansion initiative says it will bring broadband internet access to thousands in Mingo County and eventually other counties itching for a faster connection.

The Houston-based Skylark Wireless announced Wednesday that it will receive a 2018 Microsoft Airband Initiative Grant to provide “affordable” broadband service to underserved communities in rural West Virginia.

Ryan Guerra, founder and CEO of Skylark, said in an interview Thursday that the company’s ultimate goal is to provide broadband to 10,000 homes and businesses in the Mingo County area through TV white spaces, in which unused broadcast channels between active ones are accessed for internet service.

“This kind of technology can serve essentially anybody in rural regions; there are very few regions where you can’t cover it economically,” he said.

Skylark wants to focus on the hardware side of the project while PackIT Wireless, a newly formed startup based in Chapmanville, will be running the internet service, said PackIT founder Allen Pack.

Pack said the service will start out in Mingo County and eventually work its way into other counties, like Logan. Pack is expecting a quick turnaround for deployment in Mingo — he said testing will begin as early as October.

Guerra said Skylark isn’t ready to share pricing details yet, but added that it would be competitive with other providers. According to FCC data, about 51 percent of Mingo County lacks access to more than one broadband provider.

Skylark will start the project by installing a “proof-of-concept” base station in Mingo that will provide coverage to a number of homes in the area while making sure the technology works as it should, Guerra said. Where that base station will be located is still unclear, but Guerra said Skylark has a “favorite location” and a few others in the running.

Skylark will then expand access to that station, serving its users with high speed broadband, and eventually grow its footprint further by establishing additional base stations and towers to use, he said.

The service will initially focus on areas from Delbarton to Gilbert, according to Pack.

Microsoft’s Airband Initiative is geared toward broadband expansion through TV white spaces. It’s a connection method relatively unexplored among larger providers, but it still has some regulatory hoops to jump through — Microsoft is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to open up these channels for wireless use on an unlicensed basis.

Skylark specifically will be using its “Massive MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Output) Television White Space platform” for internet access. The technology allows users to communicate at a further distance, at a higher power and at a larger capacity without changing the amount of energy it’s transmitting in the air, Guerra said.

Skylark’s Mingo County connection began in late 2017, Guerra said. PackIT Wireless reached out to the company about deploying its wireless technology in Mingo County, where establishing a wired connection is pricey because of its geography.

“In some areas it is even hard to receive satellite connectivity reliably due to the mountainous terrain,” Skylark’s release said of Mingo County. “The cost to deploy wired systems is prohibitive, and current 4G technologies don’t have the range or capacity to provide affordable broadband connectivity.”

Skylark was already searching for a pilot location for its technology, which was ready to be implemented in a realworld situation after years in development.

“It was the perfect location for us, where we said, ‘If we can make this work for Mingo County, we can pretty much make it work anywhere,’ ” Guerra said. “It was the right place, the right time, we had the support structure there, and the local government was very happy to help us.”

State officials have pointed to improved internet speeds as a way to help West Virginia’s lagging economy.

“We know there is a huge potential for economic growth through our agriculture industries,” state Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt said in Microsoft’s news release on the announcement. “Unfortunately, many of these small businesses struggle to reach their potential because of a lack of access to broadband. I commend Microsoft’s approach, which combines public-private partnerships with emerging technologies to connect West Virginia to the rest of the world and bring 21st century opportunities to our state.”

The grant amount was not disclosed by either Skylark or Microsoft, although state Broadba nd En ha ncement Council Chairman Rob Hinton said in June that Microsoft was eyeing an investment of $1 million to $2 million.

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