Among the rolling hills and mountains of Appalachia sits the small city of Williamstown, Kentucky, in central Grant County. Home to about 3,500 people, Williamstown is the center of connectivity for the county. The city’s fiber provides high-speed connectivity to local businesses, while its long-running cable network keeps folks connected in the town. Williamstown operates a small Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network in the southern half of the county and offers much of the rest of the county fixed wireless service.
Williamstown Cable Center of Connectivity
Roy Osborne, the Superintendent at Williamstown Cable told us how this small town had developed so many different projects throughout the county. Within the town itself, the network is a hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) system that supports speeds from 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 100 Mbps download for residents and businesses alike; upload speeds vary from 2 Mbps to 10 Mbps.
For large institutions, Williamstown Cable builds fiber lines to provide reliable, fast connectivity. It serves most county facilities, such as the courthouse and detention center. It even brought a fiber connection to the theme park just outside of town — the Ark Encounter, based on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Osborne recalled the high level of Internet service in the small town surprised the developers.
The community was not going to let its rural neighbors remain without connectivity. In 2007, the town started a project to bring fixed wireless service to the surrounding county. Williamstown Cable found a way to bring some of the fastest, most reliable Internet service to a small community of Corinth in southern Grant County in 2010. They used federal funding to build a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to the 200 people in the town.
How Williamstown Built So Many Networks
Like many communities, Williamstown started providing services because no one else would invest in their rural sparsely populated area. The department first built a cable system in 1984 to provide television service, connecting the small town residents to the news. Williamstown Cable paid its own way, reinvesting money earned from the television service back into the network. In the early 2000s, the city spent nearly $2 million on a major upgrade to the network – overbuilding the old cable with a hybrid fiber coaxial system that was state-of-the-art technology at the time. That system still supports Internet service within the town limits.
They launched Internet service in 2005 after patiently waiting for years for the telephone company to offer something faster than dial-up. In 2007, the community started offering fixed wireless service, building radio towers and using existing water towers to spread the signal throughout the county.
While expanding their network, they came across an abandoned cable system that had been deployed by a small company years earlier and then bought by Time Warner Cable, but the company was actively looking to sell the infrastructure. Williamstown Cable seized the opportunity. They purchased the system for a single dollar and started upgrading it. The head-end, where the electronics that make the network function, had been a portable shed. Williamstown Cable obtained grant money through the federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) to revamp the abandoned system.
The federal government gave Williamstown Cable about $500,000 for their project, and Williamstown Cable matched the grant with its own funding sources. They quickly built out an FTTH network around Corinth in 2010 for $1 million. Previously, Corinth didn’t have any Internet service – not even DSL. Now Willaimstown was able to offer Corinth the best connectivity available.
The Federal Government’s Role
While the ARRA projects were underway throughout the country, a shake-up started on the federal level. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which manages these connectivity programs, began to transform some older programs into the new Connect America Fund (CAF). This didn’t seem to affect Williamstown much until the Connect America Fund Annual Support program rolled out.
The program gives $1.5 billion each year to ten large Internet Service Providers (ISPs) across the country. The ISPs submitted to the FCC which areas within their service area were unserved or underserved, and then the FCC subsidized new networks in those areas. In order for the program to work effectively, the FCC needs to know exactly where good, high-speed networks are in the U.S. Unfortunately, information on the location of underserved and unserved areas is often outdated or incorrect.
One of the large ISPs happened to submit areas in Grant County that were already served by Williamstown Cable’s projects – specifically, areas served by the FTTH project from the federal ARRA grant. The company assured Williamstown Cable that they would not overbuild the existing fiber network but instead would use the grants to improve Internet access nearby.
The “little network that could” has grown by leaps and bounds since it started off in the 1980s. Grant County residents now have high-speed Internet access, and Williamstown Cable has spent less than $4 million out of its own pocket. Superintendent Osborne noted that they were responding to community needs and that the networks have been self-supported. Soon, they will offer phone service as well – many people like having a single bill for their phone, TV, and Internet service offered by a local provider who understands their needs.