Eau Claire County, Wis., to Test Free Starlink Internet

The 50 participants who will receive one year of free Internet via satellite have been selected by Eau Claire County. The pilot project aims to help households with limited access to Internet.

pixelated image of a house
Shutterstock/ASHARKYU
(TNS) — Eau Claire County, Wis., has selected 50 participants who will receive a year of free Internet as part of a pilot project.

The pilot focuses on unserved businesses and households in rural parts of southeastern Eau Claire County. It is operated by SpaceX Starlink and costs $85,000 total. As part of paying for the project, the local community needed to raise $30,000 and has successfully done so, according to Supervisor Don Mowry, chair of the county Broadband Committee, which met Thursday.

Funding was covered in part by three health care providers that have partnered with the county on this project: Marshfield Clinic, Mayo Clinic Health System and Hospital Sisters Health System.

To determine the 50 participants, the county sorted the 60 responses it recently received from a project survey. It then checked how many of the six groups a respondent met. The county hoped to have a fairly even selection of people among the six groups, which are agriculture, telemedicine, telework, remote education, business and residential.

County Information Systems Director Dave Hayden said the selection process went well and had a good mix of participants among the six groups.

"I'm pleased with the way this came out," Hayden said. "I think a lot of people will ... benefit from this."

Going forward, the county will provide the 50 participants' addresses to Starlink, which will verify that the addresses are in its coverage area and then send the Internet equipment to the participants.

Participants will be encouraged to fill out a weekly survey on the Internet service. Hayden also mentioned the county possibly hosting focus groups among participants to gain a better sense of how the pilot is working.

FUTURE PROJECTS

The Broadband Committee also discussed the process for moving forward regarding potential broadband projects funded as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, a COVID-19 federal relief bill passed last month. Eau Claire County will receive $20.3 million as part of the bill, and broadband is one of the spending priorities in a county document discussed earlier this week. All of the money must be spent by the end of 2024. No spending decisions have been made yet, since federal spending guidelines won't be released until at least next month.

Committee members said the main challenge regarding future broadband projects will be coordinating with the county, towns and Internet providers like Charter Spectrum to determine what project to do and how it will be funded. County Administrator Kathryn Schauf echoed those sentiments during a Wednesday county COVID-19 task force meeting.

"There's broadband funding coming through a number of different channels, and so we're going to want to be cognizant of where money is coming from and for what purpose," Schauf said.

The federal money is an exciting, likely rare chance, so projects must be thoroughly considered.

"It is an opportunity that probably will be here for the next couple years and may never come back," said committee member Thomas Lange, vice president of information technology and chief information officer at Chippewa Valley Technical College. "I think we have to be very careful how we look at this."

Mowry is excited for the new challenge of figuring out how to best spend money.

"Most of my career in higher education and so far in the county is trying to figure out how to cut budgets, and now all of a sudden we have money for projects we haven't even dreamed of yet," Mowry said. The next Broadband Committee meeting is scheduled for May 20.

(c)2021 the Leader-Telegram, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.