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State Broadband Grants Will Boost Rural Wisconsin Internet Service

More than a dozen telecom companies could receive a total of $1.5 million under the government subsidies, which should add service for approximately 8,500 households.

(TNS) — Dial-up internet service hasn't gone the way of floppy disks just yet, but we are one step closer to its demise in Wisconsin through the next round of state broadband grants aimed at getting rural communities out of the digital slow lane.

More than a dozen telecom companies could receive a total of $1.5 million under the government subsidies. That should help boost internet service in more than 20 communities, representing approximately 8,500 households, the state Public Service Commission said Friday.

Some of those communities, including parts of the Town of Berry, in northwest Dane County, are still stuck on dial-up-modem internet service, considered very slow by today's standards.

Under the state grants, TDS Telecom of Madison would get half of the $313,000 needed to extend high-speed internet service to 166 currently unserved households in the Town of Berry.

"About a quarter of the town has been stuck on dial-up, even in 2016, when we are only 30 miles from the state Capitol building," said Town Chairman Anthony Varda.

"This is the third time we have been through the grant process with TDS, and it's the first time they have agreed to contribute significant funds to the project. I believe that was the turning point," Varda said.

A recent national report ranked Wisconsin near the bottom among states in average internet speeds, although gains have been made in many areas through the deployment of fiber-optic cable and improved mobile wireless service.

The average download speed for Wisconsin was 25.89 megabits per second, compared with 54 mbps for the national average, according to the report from Speedtest, based in Seattle.

Many rural areas are limited to a slow-speed connection that's unsuitable for watching videos or operating a business. By today's standards, dial-up internet is useless for many purposes.

Once the TDS expansion is done in the Town of Berry, most of the town will have good service, Varda said.

The latest broadband grants, approved by the Public Service Commission, are preliminary.

Final approval of the individual grants hinges on the recipient accepting the terms and conditions.

The private match to the $1.5 million would be $2.27 million, for a total spend of $3.77 million, according to the Public Service Commission. Work on the projects is expected to be completed within two years.

Without government assistance, broadband providers say, they couldn't afford to extend the service to sparsely populated areas because there aren't enough customers to justify the cost.

TDS, and other telecoms, have received millions of dollars in government assistance to expand broadband services in Wisconsin and other states. Without this state grant, the company says, it couldn't afford to ramp up service in the Town of Berry.

"With this funding, we will be able to build out in the area. ... Our customers have been clamoring for this," said TDS spokeswoman Cindy Tomlinson.

The proposed grants and recipients are subject to final approval: Century Tel of Central Wisconsin (Hickory Park project) $10,000; Chibardun Telephone Cooperative, $38,477; ChoiceTel (Land O' Lakes II project) $131,475; Ethoplex LLC (Town of Oconomowoc) $7,886; Frontier North Inc. (Town of Weston) $201,750; Hager Telecom (Diamond Bluff) $43,775; Iron County Resource Development Assoc., $79,101; Lafayette Development Corp., $86,084; MH Telecom (Dodgeville) $55,360; Onedia County EDC, $180,566; 24-7 Telcom, $67,500; Wittenberg Telephone Co. (Village of White Lake) $92,000.

©2016 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.