When will broadband come to Walton County? Commissioners extend contractor deadline again

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — For the second time in six months, the Walton County Board of County Commissioners has extended the deadline for WildStar Networks to begin making internet service available countywide.

WildStar Networks most recently has blamed slow delivery of needed equipment for the delay in making digital broadband service available as scheduled.

Initially, the company, working under a $3.5 million contract to phase in broadband service across the county, had planned June 1 of this year as its first service "milestone," meaning that broadband service would be available within three months after that date in the northern quarter of the county, including communities such as Darlington, Paxton and Leonia.

Related: Pre-registration underway for Walton County high-speed internet service

Earlier this year: WildStar broadband service on edge of coming to parts of Walton County

From there, under the company's initial plan, internet service was to have been made available in a middle section of the county, including DeFuniak Springs, within three months of Oct. 1 of this year. Beyond that, service was slated to begin within three months of Feb. 1, 2022, in and around the Freeport area, with the southernmost quadrant of the county near its beaches slated for service within three months of June 1 of next year.

But the County Commission in May extended the deadlines to Oct. 1 for the northernmost part of the county and to January of next year for the DeFuniak Springs area, while leaving the deadline at Feb. 1 of next year for the Freeport area and at June 1 of next year for the southernmost part of the county.

With a unanimous Tuesday vote, commissioners again granted a WildStar Networks request to extend the deadline to Jan. 1 of next year for the northernmost part of the county, to Feb. 1 for the DeFuniak Springs area and to April 1 for the Freeport area. The dealine for the southernmost part of the county remains June 1, 2022.

A photo from the WildStar Networks website shows a tower being hoisted into place to serve as part of broadband infrastructure. Supply issues have delayed WildStar's efforts in Walton County.

In explaining the latest request for an extension, Henry Martin, director of market development for WildStar, said that problems in getting equipment called "base nodes" delivered from its supplier was delaying the process to get broadband service up and running in the northern end of the county.

Base nodes are the antennas that manage broadband resources and connections.

According to Martin, WildStar has eight towers at sites across the north end ready to be erected as soon as the base nodes arrive. Martin told commissioners that WildStar's supplier "told us (last) Friday that we're getting 24 base nodes this week." But he added that the supplier has "said this in the past, and I don't want to get your expectations up."

However, Martin did say that if the base nodes are delivered within days, "we actually have a plan to start putting up these antennas immediately, three antennas per tower. As soon as we get these base nodes, things are going to start hopping."

When the base nodes do arrive, Martin said he would notify the county "and we can start moving forward with those."

WildStar does have three base nodes installed on structures at three locations in the northern end of the county, Martin told commissioners Tuesday, but they are being used by just a few "beta users," people who help test a system before it goes fully online.

More Walton technology news:No Zoom for them: Walton commissioners opt out of remote participation in meetings

While he ultimately joined his colleagues in favor of extending the service deadlines, Commissioner Danny Glidewell, whose district includes a wide swath of the northernmost parts of the county, did not hide his frustration.

"I understand y'all's problems," Glidewell told Martin. "However, I understand a lot of people in my district do not have internet and need your services greatly. ... In Darlington, for example, those folks don't have any internet, period. They are waiting — not as patiently as they used to be."

Glidewell asked Martin whether it would be possible for WildStar to begin offering service to at least part of the northern end of the county from the equipment it currently has installed.

Martin answered that providing broadband service requires the use of multiple towers in a process called "backhauling."

"So just to bring one tower up, that's not going to be feasible," he said. "Especially the one in Darlington, because that's going to be back-fed from another tower."

Previously:DeSantis delivers big check for Walton County broadband, Northwest Florida Commerce Park

But Martin added that, just like the commissioners, WildStar is hearing from potential customers. "People call us and say 'When are you getting hooked up, when are we getting internet? ... There's a lot of frustration, and I understand that."

As the discussion continued, Glidewell continued to press Martin to get broadband services up and running in the northern end, even if it's just in parts of the area, as soon as possible.

"Don't wait until you've got the whole Zone A ready to go before you start turning things on," he said.

In a Thursday interview, Glidewell was somewhat more philosophical about the issue, noting the reality of supply chain issues such as the dozens of cargo ships backing up at California's Long Beach port.

WildStar is "installing towers all over the place, and they're having difficulties with parts, which is not unusual," Glidewell said. "It's not a county problem, it's a national problem, but we're having to deal with it."

A Thursday morning telephone call and subsequent email to Wildstar had not received a response as of Thursday afternoon.

The WildStar Networks website, at https://wildstarnetworks.com/internet-walton, is conducting pre-registration for broadband services. it is offering a basic plan for as low as $45 per month and an enhanced plan for as low as $60 per month.