Tiny WISP Fears Ruin From West Virginia-Funded Overbuilder
By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband
Washington, D.C., Jan. 4, 2024 – Government officials are handing out billions in subsidy dollars to support broadband deployment in rural America. In doing so, they’re expected not to fund projects that overbuild existing broadband infrastructure.
But, according to the owner of a tiny wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP), the state of West Virginia last year awarded millions of dollars to a company that is going to make fiber service available to all of the company’s customers.
“I think this is a government taking by handing money out to private sector interests,” said Andrew Meador, who owns UltraWISP in St. George, W.Va., in a phone interview. “It’s a very Marxist approach – picking winners and losers.”
Meador, 52, launched UltraWISP in the middle of 2021 – almost two years before the state of West Virginia awarded nearly $8 million to Digital Connections (doing business as Prodigi) to deploy fiber broadband in unserved areas of Tucker County, about 65 miles southeast of Morgantown.
The county includes the community of St. George, where UltraWISP today provides service to 25 subscribers.
Under the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, the U.S. Department of Commerce says a location is eligible for broadband funding if there is no access to speeds consisting of 100 Megabits per second downstream and 20 Mbps upstream.
UltraWISP offers a service tier with symmetrical speeds that can reach 200 Mbps, Meador said, adding that slower speed plans are also available.
Although West Virginia provided BEAD-like protections from overbuilding, Meador called them “minimal and superficial” and did not include a realistic challenge process.
“They just put a notice about it on their website and it's on you to find it and know about it,” Meador said.
Although losing $1,000 a month, Meador said he was hopeful that UltraWISP would be able to break even before Prodigi’s expected arrival in St. George within the next year to 18 months. Meador raised his rates 45% this month, hoping the new revenue will pay his bills.
Last month, Meador addressed the Tucker County Commission to request $65,000 to help with his expenses. He felt county support was justified because the three-member commission provided at least $50,000 in matching funds to help Prodigi obtain the state grant under the Line Extension Advancement and Development (LEAD) program.
Meador’s said his point was simple: “You’re funding them. You’re not funding me. That’s not free-market competition.”
Tucker County Commission President Michael Rosenau said in a phone interview that unlocking state funding for Prodigi required a county match.
“We had to have skin in the game,” Rosenau said, stressing the importance of the Prodigi project to his rural county with an abundance of hills and hollows. Prodigi, he added, is expected to deliver high-speed Internet to 200 unserved or underserved locations in Tucker County.
Rosenau explained that if the country reimbursed Meador, it would cause other business owners to seek county assistance to overcome financial hardship.
“Everybody would be in line for it – the local bakery, the autoshop,” Rosenau said. “We can’t do that. Those are tax dollars.”
However, if Meador had access to state broadband funding on condition he obtained a level of matching funds from the country, Rosenau said, “That would be a different situation.”
Prodigi has plans to enter St. George at some point and offer its fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) service that can provide 10 gigabit symmetrical service.
But providing service to served locations using LEAD grant dollars is not allowed under state rules, said Prodigi President Tim Wotring in a phone interview.
Wotring said his company’s was focused on getting West Virginia connected.
“We don’t have ill-intent toward Mr. Meador or any of that,” Wotring said. “I understand his frustrations and concerns … and I don’t want to cause any harm to him.”
An official with the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council was unavailable to comment.
Meador left his job with the Tucker County Assessor’s Office in 2022 as UltraWISP was beginning to offer service to customers. He said he didn’t apply for state LEAD money because his company was too small to qualify. Meador has no employees.
Meador does not have many options. Selling his company to Prodigi isn’t realistic.
“Prodigi doesn’t need to buy me out – they can come and offer my customers free service for six months and other incentives. Then I’m done,” Meador said.
He said he reached out for legal assistance to the Institute of Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, but had not heard back.
He’s also thinking of starting a GoFundMe page or connecting with other crowdfunding sources.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m between a rock and hard place,” Meador said.