Citing a good-neighbor policy, the Ellis County Commission at its regular meeting Monday unanimously approved Nex-Tech Wireless to beat out Verizon for the county’s two-year wireless and data contract.

While the Nex-Tech Wireless contract costs slightly more, the commissioners noted NTW has a huge presence in Hays and Ellis County, which matters to them, they said.

A county selection committee that studied the carrier’s two proposals at length had recommended the county end its 13-year run with NexTech Wireless and switch to Verizon, citing both cost and coverage.

“I believe in a real shop-at-home policy, always have, I use it in my personal life,” said County Commissioner Butch Schlyer at Monday’s meeting in the Ellis County Administrative Center. “We always expect our businesses and our taxpayers to support Ellis County. We need to support our businesses and taxpayers.”

Commissioner Dustin Roths also voted to keep Nex-Tech Wireless, commenting that he’d talked at length with NTW Chief Operating Officer Aaron Gillespie and toured one of their facilities in Hays.

“It was quite expansive, employees everywhere, and impressive,” Roths said, adding “As a county commissioner, I sit here and I want to thank them every day for locating themselves in Ellis County, and being great stewards in the community, and obviously huge investors in technology in all of western Kansas and Kansas. Being a Kansas-based company is really important to me, much more than the dollar figures here.”

Nex-Tech Wireless' bid for 47 64gb Apple iPhone 8s and 10 hotspots, plus service was $56,110 for two years. Verizon’s bid was $53,405.

Ellis County Sheriff’s Department officials argued for Verizon on the basis of coverage, in particular their struggle to transmit data when out in the county.

Undersheriff Scott Braun, who said he has a NTW phone for his personal use, said the department currently runs some mobile hot spots within the county to improve coverage once officers leave Hays.

“On the data side, we lose a lot of information and time,” Braun said.

Verizon and Nex-Tech Wireless both provide cellular on wheels, a portable system so that if towers go down officers can still communicate. The Nex-Tech Wireless one does not support the data side, however, while Verizon’s supports both data and cellular, he said.

“It’s important if we have a disaster that each one of you be able to be contacted. So we’re looking at the bigger picture,” Braun said. “I’m not saying Nex-Tech wouldn’t provide the coverage we need on the cellular side, but I have a little concern with the data side, that we’ve experienced.”

Darin Myers, director of Fire and Emergency Management, said he would prefer Verizon, even though it’s “hit or miss” with either company, depending on location.

In the last couple years, he said, at large fires, he didn’t have data access and wasn’t able to make phone calls.

“I literally had to leave the scene, drive miles to get up on top of a hill with Nex-Tech to be able to communicate back and forth,” he said. “Then I’d have voicemails and text messages and then I’d be sitting there on the phone while the emergency is going on.”

He’s since switched to Verizon, he said, and overall there are less areas that he doesn’t have signal.

“I’m just curious,” asked Commissioner Dean Haselhorst, “you don’t have coverage north of Ellis either do you?”

“No, you can get down on the Smoky Hill River and you don’t with either one of them,” Myers said. “It’s a hit and miss. If you look at one company over the other, you’re going to have black spots everywhere.”

Brad Ricke, with the Ellis County Sheriff’s Department’s high-tech crime unit, echoed the others' comments, adding, however, that Nex-Tech Wireless has bent over backwards to accommodate his investigations, and provides top-notch customer service.

“When we’re out in the county and we’re using our mobile data terminals to transfer images of mug shots for people that we’re looking for, suspects, we’re trying to place phone calls to loved ones that something tragic has happened to somebody in their family, we are mission critical,” Ricke said. “We have got to have those connections and that is why it’s so important to us.”

Commissioner Haselhorst compared service between the two while recently talking on the phone to Public Works Director Bill Ring. Haselhorst said he has phones from each company: a company phone that is Verizon, and a Nex-Tech Wireless phone, because he wants coverage in Ellis County, he said.

“Just today when I was talking to Bill Ring, I was up on the Saline River and I think I lost him two or three times,” Haselhorst said. “I told him early on when we started the conversation that our conversation would be coming to an end, and within about 30 seconds it did, until I got four miles down the road and I could use my phone again.”

He said driving on Highway 40 from Walker to the Ellis-Russell County line, there’s no coverage.

“I can tell you Nex-Tech has a tower on United Ag’s elevator in Gorham, Kansas. I’m assuming it’s still there, cause I have five bars,” Haselhorst said. “I can also tell you up on the river road, I get great coverage with Nex-Tech. I’m not saying I’m a promoter of NexTech, but I can tell you I have a Verizon phone and it works good in a lot of areas, but when I get north of Hays and one mile west of Antonino, Kansas it does not work until I travel about three more miles down the road.”

Schlyer asked Braun, “We’ve had Nex-Tech now since 2006, so for 13 years we really haven’t had a coverage issue or anything of significance that would have brought this to our attention in the past?”

Braun said data has always been an issue.

“Our guys run mobile datas in their cars and it is so sluggish, in fact sometimes it doesn’t even come up,” Braun said. “So they save everything on their computer, so they’re not live, so we’ve been running some hotspots for the sheriff’s office through the Verizon side.””

Speaking for Nex-Tech Wireless at Monday’s meeting, Gillespie said the company chose to be based in Ellis County in 2005, and in 14 years has expanded it to cover 40-plus counties, close to 40,000 square miles, and invested more than $100 million in technology in western Kansas. With multiple locations, 70 of their 130 employees live in Ellis County. And among the three Kansas cooperatives that own Nex-Tech Wireless, collectively 203 of their more than 500 employees live in Ellis County.

“Those folks, just like us in the business, are sponsoring everything from ballparks to parades to you name it we’re involved in it,” Gillespie said. “That extends to those employees personal lives as well. We are in the grocery store line next to you, we’re coaching ball teams, we’re doing everything to promote Ellis County.”

On the technology side, he said Nex-Tech Wireless has 17 cell sites in Ellis County.

“We’ll be upgrading a site for data north of Ellis, also south of Victoria and then the Catharine situation, unfortunately that site, it was not quick on the data side during that fire, but it has been upgraded since,” Gillespie said.

NTW has technology improvements coming, he said, including one launching this year that will improve public safety response.

“We are in the process of launching a new service that’s referred to as IMS, which will allow us to also launch a proprietary service that’s called Emergency Priority Service, that will give priority to first responders,” Gillespie said. “It’ll be priority 24-7, 365, not just when there’s an emergency.”

In describing its service, Verizon representative Joe May outlined his company’s public safety offerings, noting that priority and preemption have been in place for more than a year now for public safety.

“It is a solution that gives priority, and always-on priority, to our not only wireless but also our data,” May said, “putting you at the front of the users, at the front of the line during a high-traffic event like a tornado or some other public safety event, where the consumers are going to be jamming that network, and possibly overwhelming the capacity of a certain tower that your traffic may be riding on.”

Preemption is not always-on, but it can be activated as needed during high traffic events, May said, when traffic is overwhelming a tower at a time when a session is coming in from fire, police or EMS.

“In the past you would get a failed attempt,” May said. “What preemption does, is it will remove a consumer from that tower and allow that public safety entity to get in.”

Also, besides cellular on wheels, there’s generators on wheels and other equipment that can be deployed, in coordination with the Verizon Crisis Response Team, to respond to any crisis, such as flooding now in Nebraska.

“Public Safety is foremost in our minds and we have a dedicated team, myself and multiple teams across the country, that focus on public safety,” May said.

The next meeting of the Ellis County Commission is April 1 in the Commission Room of the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718.