Sunset Digital sees promise in $50 million OptiNet deal

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Paul Elswick (left) is CEO and his son, Ryan, is COO
of Sunset Digital Communications.

Paul Elswick is excited. “I’ve lived in Southwest Virginia all of my adult life, and I think it’s a turning point,” the CEO of Sunset Digital Communications says.

He is talking about  his company’s $50 million purchase of OptiNet, the broadband network previously owned by BVU (Bristol Virginia Utilities). OptiNet provides cable, phone and high-speed internet service to roughly 12,500 Southwest Virginia customers.

“We think it’s a cornerstone for reinventing the economy in Southwest Virginia,” Elswick says.

That economy has depended on coal jobs, which have been declining for a long time. In 1985, the U.S. had more than 178,000 coal miners. In June, there were a few more than 50,000.

Elswick, whose company serves customers from Bluefield to Bristol and into Tennessee, says broadband can attract new jobs to the region. “Once we put it in place, all kinds of smart people will figure out how to use it, and we’ll start growing the economy,” he says.

His company plans to provide nearly 160 jobs, counting the people who will help expand the network.

“You’re talking about climbing poles, digging ditches, laying cable, going into people’s homes and doing professional installations without damaging their house,” Elswick says. “And then, back at the headquarters, you’ve got highly skilled people developing the virtual network, which is configuring switches and routers and stuff to route all the traffic … not to mention the back-office jobs of billing and marketing and sales and just everything it takes to run a business from soup to nuts; that’s what we’re going to do in-house.”

Sunset is a partner in a Mountain Empire Community College program preparing people to begin linemen training, just one example of how the company tries to find employees in the region it serves, says COO Ryan Elswick, Paul’s son.

“We’ve grown our own,” he says, “and we think there’s still a large untapped — relatively large untapped — group of people who are skilled or semi-skilled that we’ll be able to pull from.”

Sunset’s plans call for another $58 million in private investment in the system during the next five years, Paul Elswick says. Government investment may push that total past $150 million in five to seven years, he says.

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