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$28M in Federal Funds Set to Expand Internet in Rural Wisconsin

Federal funds are helping rural southwest Wisconsin expand access to Internet service. The Reedsburg Utility Commission received a $28 million loan in August for nine underground fiber-optic projects.

(TNS) — High-speed Internet has become a crucial resource nationwide, and federal funds are helping rural southwest Wisconsin expand access to service.

The Reedsburg Utility Commission received a $28 million loan in August for nine underground fiber optic projects in rural areas of Sauk, Juneau, Richland, Iowa and Dane counties over the next few years. One of the projects, which covers an area east of Spring Green, is pretty much completed, company general manager Brett Schuppner said.

"High-speed Internet is no longer a luxury, it's a necessity for Wisconsin families in every corner of the state to attend school, work remotely, run their businesses, and connect with friends and family," U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said in a statement announcing the funding.

"I am proud to support this loan that will connect more families, businesses, and farmers in South Central Wisconsin to the Internet they need to participate fully in our economy."

Federal funding is helping to offset the costs of inflation, as the series of projects was estimated at $30.4 million when the Reedsburg Utility Commission began planning in 2020, Schuppner said. When applying for the federal loan two years later, the estimate increased to $42.8 million, he added.

Fiber optic service from the Reedsburg Utility Commission offers 1-gigabit download and upload standard speeds, with options up to 10, Schuppner said. The Federal Communications Commission broadband capability minimums are 25-megabit download and 3-megabit upload speeds, according to BroadbandUSA.

"We typically see 70 percent of the people we build by take service, so it's pretty important to that number of people," Schuppner said regarding the importance of rural high speed Internet. "A lot of these areas didn't even have those sort of speeds, 25 by 3. It's quite a jump up from what they have right now."

Farmers in areas currently covered by the Reedsburg Utility Commission's fiber optic service have used it to speed up the process of computer-controlled livestock feeding, Schuppner said. He also discussed the additional convenience in work and education from home and in telehealth services.

"Without adequate broadband, many of our patients do not have the capability for telehealth visits," said Dr. Maureen Murphy of Dean Medical Group. "This is a wonderful thing for those patients who will benefit from such expansion."

The future projects funded by the federal loan will be in largely unincorporated areas of the five counties. Communities located in or near the future projects include Loganville, Lime Ridge, Hillpoint, Lyndon Station, Lone Rock, Arena, North Freedom and Rock Springs.

Projects in Juneau and Richland Counties, along with an expansion of Baraboo coverage, have no estimated start time, according to the utility's Internet service website, which has a map showing project boundaries. In 2024, the utility will begin work on an area of southeastern Sauk County west of Devil's Lake State Park.

Customers who register for service with the Reedsburg Utility Commission prior to construction will receive a discount on their service. The installation fee for the service will essentially be waived, as customers would pay a $100 fee and get it credited on their subsequent invoices, Schuppner said. Building connectivity in homes while construction on a fiber optic line is being done is more cost-effective for the commission, he said, adding that the utility wants to pass those savings along to customers.

The Reedsburg Utility Commission has fiber optic service available throughout Reedsburg as part of a coverage belt that stretches from Spring Green to the Wisconsin Dells/Lake Delton area. Plain and Loganville are also located along that corridor.

Loans for rural broadband in Wisconsin and other states are funded through the ReConnect Program, a federal initiative that provides loans and grants for high-speed Internet facilities in rural areas. The program is funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law on Nov. 15, 2021.

Lynxx Networks and TDS Telecom are two other broadband providers building fiber-optic networks in Juneau County. Lynxx has projects in Mauston and rural areas east and north of the city, while TDS started a project in the Necedah area on Aug. 9.

Reporter John Gittings can be reached via phone at (920) 210-4695.

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