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Wisconsin County Advances Rural Internet Access Project

The new $85,000 project would be operated by the private company SpaceX and provide high-speed Internet for one year to 50 rural households in southeast Eau Claire County, Wis., near Augusta.

by Ryan Patterson, The Leader-Telegram / December 9, 2020
Shutterstock/FlashMovie

(TNS) — High speed Internet could be coming to rural parts of Eau Claire County in the near future.

During its meeting Tuesday, the Eau Claire County Broadband Committee unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the county to move forward with a rural broadband pilot project. The $85,000 project would be operated by the company SpaceX and provide high-speed internet for one year to 50 rural households in southeast Eau Claire County near Augusta.

The county Administration Committee also approved the resolution during its meeting Tuesday afternoon. The resolution requires final approval next Tuesday from the County Board.

County Information Systems Director  Dave Hayden  said his best guess for a project start date is between mid-January and late February 2021.

The county is responsible for paying SpaceX $85,000 over 12 months, but some of that should be covered by a $25,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. that is expected to be awarded to the Broadband Committee to pay for the equipment given to the internet users. The remaining $60,000 would be covered by the county and community fundraising.

The county committed to pay $30,000, or half of the remaining total, from its Information Systems budget. The other $30,000 would come from community donors, meaning individuals, businesses and other entities such as school districts.

Hayden said the 50 pilot project users, which still have to be determined, could donate as part of the fundraising effort, but their payment would not be required.

"Contributions from the participants would be more than welcome ... but I don't think we want to get into charging the participants for the service," Hayden said.

Some community members have already committed money, but much of the $30,000 still needs to be raised.

"We do have some contributions already, but we have a ways to go," Hayden said.

If $30,000 cannot be raised before the end of the project, the county must pay the remaining balance.

If the project receives final approval, the Broadband Committee will be responsible for setting up agreements with the 50 users who are part of the pilot project. If more than 50 want to participate in the project, the committee will determine criteria to select 50 users.

Internet service would be brought to users via low orbit satellites operated by SpaceX. Hayden said those satellites are an advantage since they are closer to the ground than typical satellites, which reduces "communication lag."

It was announced Monday that SpaceX will receive $886 million over the next 10 years as part of a more than $9 billion federal program to expand rural broadband access across the country.

Lynn Thompson , a Broadband Committee member and Eau Claire Energy Cooperative president and CEO, expressed support for the resolution.

"If we don't do this, some other counties will do it, and this could be very beneficial," Thompson said.

Don Mowry , county supervisor and chair of the Broadband Committee, agreed.

"I'm excited," Mowry said. "We've made a lot of progress in the past year. It's a good way to end the calendar year."

The next Broadband Committee meeting is scheduled for Dec. 17.

(c)2020 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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