A meeting held Tuesday evening at Great Rivers Distributing, Pomona, featured speakers who talked about the history of the Heritage Business Park, where Great Rivers and several other businesses are located, and the future of high speed internet in the area.
The second of those topics was presented by Current Inc. owner Danny Thomas, who introduced employee Alan Stocki as the company's expert on its internet services.
The business started out as a heating and cooling system and service provider, but has since expanded into fiber optic internet installation. About six years ago, Stocki spoke with an established service provider in California about putting equipment on five towers, and was told then it was an ambitious goal. Since then, he continued, Current Inc. has installed equipment on 262 towers in five counties.
Stocki explained that during the coronavirus lockdown in spring 2020, he became painfully aware that, in his household, with children home from school and sharing the internet bandwidth, a need for an upgrade in internet speed and availability wasn't being met.
It was also a huge problem for commercial customers like Air Evac, whose employees were having difficulty working from home because of slow internet speeds, he said.
He and Thomas embarked on a journey to resolve that issue by doing their research and taking a leap, in some areas partnering with Howell Oregon Electric Cooperative to hang fiber optic cable on co-op poles to reach rural customers.
Current Inc. became a public utility provider with its internet service about two years ago, Stocki said.
In some cases, Stocki said, the customer would pay to have their own tower installed for wireless internet service, then get a break on their internet service bill by allowing neighbors within their towers’ broadcast reach to share the service, in some cases providing access to an additional five to 10 customers.
That was OK, he said, but fiber optic is better, at 1,000 megabytes per second transmission speed.
The company entered into a competitive bidding process to receive federal funds for internet expansion, and in March was awarded roughly $9.46 million to help bring high speed internet to more than 1,600 single family homes, 80 businesses and 33 anchor institutionss, defined as public entities such as schools, hospitals and government offices, in Oregon County.
Stocki pointed out the aim of the expansion is to specifically reach the underserved in small towns and rural areas like the Ozarks, often passed over because it isn’t cost effective for many companies to build the infrastructure to provide service to a population in which there might only be a handful of customers per mile, in contrast to a more densely populated city.
"At a cost of about $14,000 a mile, you're never going to see a payback,” said Stocki. “No company in their right mind is going to come in and lay that infrastructure out, and so it was key for the government to get involved and make this possible for those residents."
The money made has been reinvested in the community, he said, but that is part of the company's policy of being good neighbors and helping solve the problems of lack of high speed internet access.
Current Inc. has hung fiber optic cable on "thousands" of HOEC poles at this point, he added, with a 10-year goal to continue to expand its fiber optic internet availability into remote areas of Ozark County.