In Gov. Mike Parson’s first State of the State address in 2019, he pinpointed the lack of broadband internet access in rural Missouri.
Some small businesses have been responding, including Rodney Ballance Jr.’s Taneynet Broadband Inc. and, more recently, his Patriot Broadband LLC franchise.
His efforts in the industry began in 2011, however, when Ballance was moving to a rural home in Kissee Mills. He was teaching college finance courses at the Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and wanted to continue the class online while he was over 1,000 miles from his former classroom.
“I called the local telephone company to make sure that there was going to be internet available so I could teach my classes online, upload video files. They said, ‘Oh, yes,’ and reassured me, with no hesitation. And we moved in August 2011,” Ballance says. “I got there and realized I could barely check email it was so slow.”
Without internet, Ballance could no longer teach his classes.
“I lost all of that. I gave it all up,” he says.
Ballance started researching what he could do.
“Finally, in 2015, there was some technology that evolved that would allow us to move high amounts of data very quickly using radio waves,” he says.
The next year, Ballance started Taneynet Broadband Inc., which currently employs three people in Forsyth. He says the company generated revenue of $153,000 in 2018. At the start of 2018, the business had 100 customers, and it ended the year with 246.
He’s heard many customer stories about how their lives have improved with internet access.
“Then, I wondered if franchising will help more people. So, I started Patriot Broadband as a franchise company,” Ballance says.
He says the franchise disclosure document process, a $300,000 investment, began in November 2018 and was approved and activated in March.
Patriot Broadband employs two people in Florida, and Ballance says the first franchisee is Derek Foerster of The Foerster Project LLC, with sales rights in Stone County.
The Missouri legislature allocated $5 million of the state budget in 2019 for the Rural Broadband Development Fund, furthering the goal of expanding internet access to smaller communities in rural areas.
But what do such government initiatives tangibly mean to Ballance? He says not much at all.
“Here’s a prime example: I found out a few weeks ago about the ReConnect Program through the (U.S. Department of Agriculture). We qualify for basically any amount of money we wanted, except for one thing,” he says. “They required us to have two years of audited financials. Well, we have two years of finances – we file our taxes and everything – but we haven’t been audited.”
Ballance, an Air Force veteran, says the red tape is frustrating.
Former state representative and current Patriot Broadband customer Lyle Rowland (R-District 155) says the allocated government money isn’t enough. But it would get things moving.
He contends it wasn’t cost-effective for larger internet providers to supply fiber-optic lines and internet towers to smaller communities where residents may or may not become customers. Therefore, he says those who pay for the high-speed service may not get what they paid for. “Technicians would come out and say, ‘I can’t get you anymore,’ and then leave,” Rowland says of past experiences with large internet providers at his rural home.
On the federal side, a plan to expand rural internet service advanced with the Federal Communications Commission announcing $1.5 billion in support over the next 10 years in Phase II of its Connect America Fund.
But Ballance maintains the support from the government is primarily “words.”
“We could provide internet for every single home in Taney County and more with just a half a million dollars. By golly, we could see high-speed internet all over the place for a million bucks. It’s so frustrating,” Ballance says.
As for serving customers, Ballance says his business does not use contracts, because as he sees it, contracts are for companies more interested in being paid than in helping customers.
Chris Berndt, the fire chief in Hollister, is another customer of Patriot Broadband. He says broadband internet within the fire station is important because online security cameras allow firefighters to monitor the station when they aren’t on-site. He says rural fire stations with small numbers of volunteers can’t always be fully manned.
Berndt says the benefits boil down to “cameras, training and incident reporting.” Firefighters can access training materials over the internet and report incidents more quickly, he says.
Ballance says being able to provide internet to rural fire stations was important to him, as he had previously served as a volunteer firefighter.
According to the Taneynet website, basic internet packages start at $60 a month for five megabits per second.
Patriot Broadband’s closest tower to Springfield is near the Taney County line, just south of Saddlebrooke. Those 200-foot towers are large investments, Ballance says, priced at $50,000-$60,000. Patriot Broadband owns three towers and has equipment on six water towers, as well as leased space on a TV tower.
He says the company also partners with cities and organizations to put equipment on water towers and other existing structures in some areas.
“People are fighting about right of choices in various aspects of their lives, and I believe in having a choice of where to live is just as important as any other choice,” Ballance says, adding people shouldn’t be limited by the availability of internet. “They shouldn’t be punished by it because of where they choose to live.”
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