Broadband Commission Sets Sights on Rural Expansion

The Eau Claire County, Wis., Broadband Committee is examining how best to expand Internet service in less populated areas. The towns of Brunswick and Drammen were discussed as potential expansion sites.

by Ryan Patterson, Leader-Telegram / October 4, 2019
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(TNS) — The Eau Claire County Broadband Committee discussed rural expansion possibilities in its meeting Thursday afternoon. Thursday marked the third gathering for the recently-formed group consisting of more than a dozen area officials and business professionals.

The towns of Brunswick and Drammen in southwestern Eau Claire County were discussed as potential expansion areas because they are close to the service areas of multiple telecommunication businesses.

Rod Eslinger, an ex-officio committee member and director of the county planning and development department, said next steps include figuring out where the fiber cable is located and what areas the telecommunications providers cover. That process could prove challenging due to privacy restrictions, but Eslinger said more meaningful discussion can occur once most cable and phone locations are known in those areas.

Eau Claire is not the only county having discussions about broadband around the state. In March, Gov. Tony Evers proposed a high-speed internet goal of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload for all Wisconsin homes and businesses by 2025. To help meet that standard, the state recently allocated $48 million over the next two years to the Wisconsin Broadband Expansion Grant Program.

Lynn Thompson, a committee member and Eau Claire Energy Cooperative President and CEO, said dialogue has begun and interest exists in fiber expansion if it makes sense for businesses to build and construct many miles of fiber optic cable for rural homes. The average cost of constructing fiber is about $30,000 per mile.

As a way to cover some of those costs, Mark Zuber, a committee member and town of Drammen clerk, mentioned the idea of increasing property taxes for three years, saying the idea could go on election sheets next year asking voters to gauge their interest level. Zuber said spotty internet service makes it tough for some residents to sell their homes because buyers want to move to an area with quality broadband. He also mentioned the significant dissatisfaction with landline connectivity in that area, noting that cell phone service is hit and miss.

Eslinger also mentioned the potential to randomly survey county citizens and ask a few questions related to broadband, which could committee could use to better understand the needs of rural areas around the county.

Scott Hoffman, a committee member and CEO of Wisconsin Independent Network Technology, said expanding fiber to rural homes will be a gradual process that will take many years. He compared the undertaking to the time and costs required to bring electricity to rural parts of the country in the 20th century.

“A lot of it has happened, but unfortunately it hasn’t happened in the (rural) areas we’re talking about,” Hoffman said. “ ... This is a challenge. It’s great that Eau Claire County is looking at it.”

The committee also discussed potential areas around the stand to look at as an example, mentioning Bloomer and Bayfield as municipalities with significant fiber connectivity.

County Board supervisor Don Mowry said the new committee will likely not apply for any near-term grants. Dec. 19 is the application deadline, and the committee has not found a suitable telecommunications partner lined up at the moment. The deadline for the next round of most broadband-related grants is June 2020.

The next broadband committee meeting is scheduled for Nov. 14 at 4 p.m.

©2019 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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