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04/20/2011
Local Resident Takes on Rural Broadband

Man brings broadband network to rural Virginia

by George Hohmann
Daily Mail Business Editor

APPOMATTOX, Va. - APPOMATTOX, Va. - Just like many rural West Virginians, some residents outside this Civil War-era community are desperate for access to high-speed Internet.

Enter Dennis Hunt, a feisty 60-something ("I'm too old to care about the something") with a relentless entrepreneurial spirit.

"Back in the yonder, Digital Bridge (a multi-state provider of Internet services) was talking about putting broadband in rural areas," Hunt said. "I thought, 'That's great. We were on dial-up and looking for something faster. I said, 'You're right here in Appomattox - when are you going to come to rural areas?' The person I talked to basically said they weren't because they couldn't get enough revenue from that.

"I said, 'We have a right to have Internet as much as the people in town. They already have cable.' I started thinking, 'Maybe that's something I ought to do.'"

Hunt's wife, Nancy, was skeptical.

"She said, 'You don't know anything about doing it. You've never run an Internet service provider.' I said somebody's gotta do it. So I did. And she did because she's married to me."

For more than two years Hunt regularly hauled gasoline 1 1/2 miles "whether the sun was shining or rain was falling or there was snow on the ground" to feed an electric generator that powered a transmission tower he had built on a steep hillside.

Hunt designed and installed a system that now allows him to remotely control the tower. He swapped out the electric generator for a propane generator with a bigger fuel tank. Two weeks ago he built a solar array and filled a shed on the hillside with car batteries to store electricity for use on cloudy days.

But he still has to cross a creek and drive up and down a steep hillside to get to his tower site.

And whenever maintenance requires it, Hunt climbs the spindly, 190-foot tower by himself.

Professionals charge $1,000 to climb a tower, Hunt said. "I can't afford that. I never climbed towers before. Now I have to."

When Hunt is performing such dangerous work, he calls Nancy every hour. They have an agreement: If he doesn't check in, she will call 911.

"I think there are two kinds of people - those who say, 'It can't be done,' and those who say, 'I will find a way to do it,' " Hunt said during a recent tour of his network. "I've always been one of those who is determined to find a way."

Of course Hunt hopes to make a fortune with his built-from-scratch network. But these days, when he's not figuring out how to sling a Wi-Fi signal around a hill, he has some explaining to do to Nancy. She keeps the books for their two-person company, GNS Networks, and she asks about the money Hunt spends on equipment.

None of it is cheap. Each simple-looking yagi antenna Hunt installs for a customer costs $300. Most of the other gear costs a lot more.

Four years ago, when Hunt established the company, he charged customers $195 up front to get on his network. "I was going $100 in the hole every time I signed up a new customer," he said.

Hunt's father, a retired candy salesman, knows a lot about sales. "He told me I couldn't go on doing that," Hunt said. "I've learned a lot from him."

Hunt has raised the new-customer fee to $295. That still just covers his costs. Hunt hopes the $39.95 monthly fee he charges will eventually result in some profit.

Hunt now has about 100 customers along the back roads between Appomattox and Concord. He's constantly thinking about how to expand his network and scouting for locations that hold the most promise of bringing in new customers.

He knows the service he provides is needed and some folks are willing to pay for it. He competes with AT&T and U.S. Cellular. A consumer can plug a so-called "air card" into a computer and access the Internet over a cellular network.

"AT&T customers are paying $69.95 a month," he said.

Rural customers also have the option of signing on with HughesNet, which provides Internet service via satellite. But HughesNet customers must limit their use so all customers have access to the satellite.

GNS Networks does not have a monthly use limit.

"One of my customers is a medical transcriptionist," Hunt said. "Another is a nurse who was hurt at work. She's in a wheelchair. She uses three to five gigs a day because she watches movies over Netflix."

One gigabyte is equal to about an hour of video.

"A fellow called me who said he wanted Internet service so his daughter could communicate with her momma, who is in Korea. They visit using Skype," a software application that allows users to make free voice calls over the Internet.

"Everybody has their reason."

Hunt claims his company provides better service than his competitors. "If you have a problem, I am local - you can drive to my house," he said. "You can't contact the guy who runs AT&T. You don't even know where he lives."

Hunt's network runs off two towers - the one he built and one erected by the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, also known as MBC.

A nonprofit, MBC was established in 2003 to promote economic development in rural southern Virginia by deploying a world-class fiber-optic backbone network. In addition to providing Hunt and others with space on its tower, MBC hauls the Internet to a nearby site. Hunt's company is a member of the cooperative.

Tad Deriso, MBC's president and chief executive officer, said in a recent interview that before the cooperative came to the area, there was no way to get broadband Internet from the closest big city, Lynchburg, to Appomattox - a distance of almost 23 miles - other than to pay big money for a so-called T-1 line.

MBC laid a fiber optic cable to Appomattox. The cooperative wholesales Internet access to any of its members, like Hunt, who want to build a last-mile network.

Deriso said Hunt is doing exactly what MBC always envisioned the cooperative would help make happen: The deployment of high-speed Internet to rural Virginia.

Contact writer George Hohmann at business@dailymail.com or 304-348-4836.

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