Thanks to funding provided by federal COVID-19 stimulus legislation, availability of wireless internet in Medina County is expected to greatly improve before the end of the year.
Sago Internet of LaCoste and R Networks of D’Hanis have been designated by the Medina County Commissioners Court to receive $700,000 each from an initial $5 million grant for the county through the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress in 2021.
To date, each company has drawn $200,000 to begin work on the broadband improvements, said Joe Arnett, co-owner of R Networks.
“We’ve used that money to order equipment,” he said. “We’re going to be building towers all over Medina County in underserved areas.”
Likewise, Sago Internet is moving forward on expanding its service to Medina County residents, said Rodney Hitzfelder, president of Sago Internet.
“We’ve bought towers, antennas and radio equipment,” he said. “We’ve contracted with an installation company to come in and do the installations. It’s a long process to put these things up.”
The ARPA funds can only be used for capital expenses – towers, equipment, antennas or construction costs, Hitzfelder said. None could be used for salaries, computers, attorney fees, land or tower leases or tapping fiber optic lines. Sago accepted the grant knowing that while it was a large sum of money for the capital costs it would create ongoing costs to the company as the system was being built.
Both Sago and R Networks operate as wireless internet service providers (WISP) using a system similar to cell phone networks. WISPs are generally found in rural areas not covered by cable television or fiber optic telephone lines capable of carrying a high-speed internet signal.
“Our wireless systems at this time require line of sight, from the customer’s antenna location to an antenna on one of our towers,” Hitzfelder said. “Not all residences can be reached. Hills, buildings, and most especially trees complicate the lives of a WISP installer. However, with our modern equipment the reach of each towers radius can be up to seven miles. This means the service footprint of one of our towers is over 150 square miles.”
A third company, CASCOM, also known as Castroville Computers, received $25,000 of the ARPA internet funds. Unlike Sago and R Networks, CASCOM specializing in using a wide range of technology to provide customized internet service to customers beyond the reach of more conventional internet providers.
“The money given to the other two companies is going to be well spent,” CASCOM owner Robert Peterson said. “They’ll get to the areas that need service.”
Of the two major WISPs based in Medina County, R Network has the deepest roots. Founded in 2012 by Arnett and his wife Shanna, the company began operations as a cell phone provider serving western Medina County and points beyond.
“I’ve always been in the wireless business,” Arnett said. “I was working from home and didn’t have fast enough internet. I knew just enough to be dangerous. After I managed to get better service at home, my neighbors started asking me if I could do the same for them.”
A business was born, he said.
The proposal put before the commissioners called for adding new towers to expand R Networks’ reach from its primary tower in Hondo, Arnett said.
“We’ve already got two leases done for two new towers building from our Hondo connection,” he said. “We already have a fiber optic connection outside of Hondo. We’re going to feed the new towers from this connection to expand to the east back to Castroville.”
Even after the $700,000 in ARPA funds is exhausted, R Networks plans to continue expanding across the county using its own money, much as the company has in previous decade, Arnett said.
“I’m forecasting that eventually we’re going to be able to build 10 to 20 more sites,” he said. “Some are not going to be full blown giant towers but smaller secondary towers.”
Hindering progress on the expansion are the same supply chain issues being experienced by industries nationwide.
“We’ve got equipment on order,” Arnett said. “We have just now started receiving some of it.”
Like R Networks, Sago Internet grew out of frustration with the available internet service in Medina County. When he retired as public information officer for the San Antonio Fire Department several years ago, Hitzfelder lost the use of the high-speed integrated services digital network (ISDN) line at his LaCoste home.
“AT&T was up, down, slow or never did anything,” Hitzfelder said. “I went with VIASAT and it was the same thing. As soon as you ran out of high speed data they shut you off.”
When still another alternative failed, the internet expert Hitzfelder conferred with, gave him some advice that worked – “Start your own WISP.”
“The startup money was not huge,” Hitzfelder said. “So I decided to do it. Now I’ve got everything I want.”
Sago operates four towers ranging between 100 and 160 feet in height – one south of LaCoste, one near Pearson, one south of Chacon Lake, all guyed wire towers, and a monopole tower on Potranco Road. All are now complete and operational and we are adding customers at this time.”
“We were very fortunate to get the towers relatively quickly because they are in short supply right now,” Hitzfelder said.
Also, Sago Internet has been in negotiation for several months with a landowner north of Devine to use a pre-existing tower with its own fiber optic connection.
“We have to pay for that out of our own pocket,” Hitzfelder said. “The grant money is only for capital items. These are very expensive lines from AT&T that we have to get enough customers to pay for.”
If a deal cannot be made for the desired site, Sago is also in talks with a landowner south of Natalia, he said.
The next phase will be four to five towers servicing the Natalia, Devine and Castroville areas, the area between Rio Medina and Quihi, and possibly an area near FM1283 and FM 471. After this deployment, Hitzfelder believes Sago may be able to complete two more similar phases, covering over half of Medina County.
Both Hitzfelder and Arnett noted that the bulk of the business they hope to attract will be with conservatively priced packages offering speeds adequate to check email and the news rather than internet gaming and other high speed pursuits.
“We have packages for folks that don’t have 10 kids streaming at once or playing games,” Arnett said. “I think that’s where Elon Musk and Starlink comes in. I don’t see any of my $40 a month customers switching to him at $110 a month because it’s three or four times as fast.”
For Medina County internet customers who value speed and service at any price, the alternative to Sago and R Networks has been Robert Peterson’s CASCOM. The company has operated in Medina County for more than 15 years.
“Don’t come to me looking for a bargain,” Peterson said. “You come to me when all the other internet providers have failed to give you good quality broadband. When people visit our customers, they say ‘Wow, how did you ever get internet out here?’”
A U.S. Navy veteran, Peterson said he learned his trade by keeping ship in radio communication by using satellite technology.
“If I can do it on a ship that is bouncing up and down on the water I can do it on the land a whole lot easier,” he said.
CASCOM uses a variety of options ranging from cell towers, high-powered antennas, repeaters used to amplify signals via fiber optic communications and various other technologies.
“It’s really on a case by case basis,” Peterson said. “In some spots we can double the available speed. In some spots we are equal in price to the other services available. But it’s a very customized decision because of all the extreme conditions.”
Providing internet for the most difficult to reach clients is a relatively small outgrowth of Peterson’s computer repair business in Castroville, he said.
“They couldn’t get the computer support they needed because they couldn’t get any internet,” Peterson said. “When I solved their internet problems for them they told their friends and so on and so …”
Companies solely dependent on WISP technology must focus on areas with the greatest customer density, Peterson said.
“I go after everybody else,” Peterson said. “I go after the ones where there is only one customer every mile and it is not a good return on the cost of putting up a tower.”
By Kayleen Holder News Correspondent