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Is fiber optic the best choice for broadband internet access?
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CRAWFORD COUNTY - When Bug Tussel CEO Steve Schneider said he was withdrawing his proposal to partner with Crawford County on a PSC grant application for the installation six cell towers to provide fixed wireless internet, some county supervisors were dismayed.

These supervisors voted against a motion to table the resolution of support for the proposal. However, the board voted 8-7 to table the proposal. So far, Bug Tussel has not applied for any tower permits.

Weeks later, Forward Analytics released a report titled ‘Broadband in Rural Wisconsin Identifying Gaps, Highlighting Successes.’

The concisely written nine-page report on rural broadband was prepared for the Wisconsin Counties Association. It definitely shed some light on the subject of broadband for rural Wisconsin. 

The report indicated that fixed wireless internet, as proposed by Bug Tussel, was at best a temporary solution. Its shortcomings were listed as being not the most reliable or ‘future-proof’ internet connection technology because it suffers from latency (lag) constraints, limited speed options, and weather effects. 

Despite its many shortcomings, fixed wireless internet’s biggest advantage was that it was relatively inexpensive to create. Building cell phone towers was less expensive than other options like burying fiber optic cable.

However, fiber optic cable was the report’s preferred choice. It allowed much higher download and upload speeds including up to a gigabyte per second (1,000 mbps). The fixed wireless plan proposed for Crawford County offered just 25 megabytes per second download and five mbps upload.

In light of all of its attributes, the report noted fiber optic cable was the fastest and most ‘future-proof’ technology available. Fiber cables can handle nearly any transmission speed, allowing households to be internet secure even in the long term It’s downside was the expense of creating the network of buried fiber optic cable.

So, where does all of this leave Crawford County. Well, Bug Tussel has made two appearances before the board with cell tower proposals. The first would’ve had the county contributing $250,000 to the 16-tower project. A second scaled-down version involving the construction of six cell towers to serve the Wauzeka area at no direct cost to the county was also proposed.

The basic download speed would be up to 25 mbps and the upload speed would be up to 5 mbps. The cost based on original figures provided by Bug Tussel was reduced by 30 percent for the 2020-21 school year and the highest speed package offered of 25 down and 5 up would cost $71.99 monthly. It was the only package that offered broadband speed and that was the minimum. Without the 30 percent discount and with a monthly equipment fee rental added, it would be $110.86. 

In the report prepared for the Wisconsin Counites Association, Forward Analytics concluded:

“Fueled by state and federal grants, the most favorable option is an expansion of fiber-optic last mile internet service, as these connections offer the ability to meet speed and reliability needs both now and into the foreseeable future. However, the high construction cost of fiber cable means that many areas will have to look toward supplementary non-fiber wired options, fixed wireless towers, or satellite internet. 

“Plans for broadband expansion should balance cost, the long-term considerations of a technology’s ability to provide adequate speed and reliability, and the short-term urgency to expand internet access to all state residents. The ideal mix of options will likely look different for every area. In particular, Wisconsin’s reliance on fixed wireless towers provides an effective means for many rural areas to get by for now, but it is not ‘future-proof’ for long-term needs. Those looking to expand fiber availability should consider cost and set realistic targets for what areas may be feasible to set up new service options.”

The county board and the public now seem better informed about Bug Tussel’s fixed wireless proposal. However, they may be less informed about the fiber optic plan designed by and for Crawford County residents. 

The 3C Co-op fiber-optic-to-the-premises plan would offer high speed broadband internet to the premises of more than 3,605 residences and businesses currently unserved or undeserved by broadband internet. While these ‘have-nots’ in the world of broadband internet comprise a sizable portion of the county’s population, it must be noted that there is a large population of ‘haves’ in Crawford County. 

Those with high-speed broadband internet access include every customer-member within the service area of the Richland Grant Telephone Co-op. RGTC offers fiber optic cable to the door. The current RGTC system can produce  gigabyte per second (1,000 mbps) download speed. The speed of 30 mbps down and 15 up cost about $50 per month.

The 3C fiber-optic-to-the-premises plan would closely resemble the fiber optic system of RGTC in Crawford County and Vernon Communications in Vernon County.

What are the details of the 3C-Co-op proposal to bring fiber optic to those without access to it in Crawford County? The plan would offer ‘future proof’ fiber optic broadband at the identical prices of Vernon Communications. A 25 mbps down and 25 mbps up will cost a member of the co-op $50 per month, according to Jay McCloskey, the president of the 3C Co-op.

The detailed 3C fiber optic plan would bury 1,000 miles of fiber optic cable at a cost of $20 million, according to McCloskey. Obviously, financing would be crucial to making the plan work. The 3C Co-op envisions a combination of grant money,  low-interest loans and other sources to get the project built. The revenue stream from the customer members would repay the borrowed money over time.

Vernon Communications would do the rest–providing technical service, billing, marketing, television content and more, according to Rod Olson, the Vernon Communications CEO. With Vernon Communications as a partner, the major responsibility for the 3C Co-op would be getting the fiber optic cable into the ground. 

“Unlike what other companies would face, 3C wouldn’t need to create a business to run it,” Olson explains. “3C has no employees, no billing, no marketing, no service technicians and no customers, Vernon Communications takes care of all of that through a service agreement. We have all of that in place already. It saves a whole bunch of money upfront. It’s hard for companies to get into the business because of the cost of operating it.

“3C doesn’t have to spend twice as much to get the system working,” Olson said. “We can hit the road running. As soon as they get fiber to the premises, we can light it up. We have that capability already. It can be successful from the beginning.

“From Vernon Communications point of view, we don’t have to stick a whole lot of money into burying fiber optic cable,” Olson said. “We can just put our services on someone else’s system and get a share of the revenue.”

 Olson noted that fixed wireless cannot provide anything near what fiber optic can provide.

“The more successful the fixed wireless system gets in attracting customers, the slower the speed they can deliver,” Olson said. “Their success is their own worst enemy.”

Olson explained why there is such a disparity between download and upload speeds with fixed wireless. The download comes off a powerful sophisticated antenna on the cell tower, while the upload is provided, by a much less powerful antenna at the customer’s end.

The Vernon Communications CEO  believes the next standard for broadband internet net speeds may increase the required upload speed to 25 mbps. The standard might be 25 mbps down and 25 mbps up.

McCloskey, the president of the 3C Co-op, said the plan is to offer the fiber to the premises for any of the 3,605 locations in Crawford County, not currently served by RGTC, Vernon Communications or located in the City of Prairie du Chien. 

“The plan would cover all of the unserved residents with fiber optic to the premises,” McCloskey said.

Another advantage that the 3C Co-op has is a top-notch survey of the unserved populace conducted by the UW-River Falls.

‘The Rural Crawford County Internet/Broadband 2019 Survey Report’ is a 58-page document that contains a plethora of information about the people still in need of high speed broadband service in the county.

The Executive Summary of that survey report includes this explanation of the project:

“In spring 2019, Crawford County Communications Co-op (3C Co-op) worked with the Survey Research Center (SRC) at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to conduct a survey of Crawford County residents and property owners. The goals of the survey were to obtain accurate information about rural Crawford County residents’ and property owners’ current access to and need for high-speed broadband Internet service. The 3C Co-op was formed to assess the financial feasibility of bringing fiber optic cable Internet service to rural Crawford County. Survey results will be used as part of a broadband expansion grant application.

“In early March 2019, the SRC mailed surveys to 1,157 randomly selected households (residents and property owners) in the portion of Crawford County 3C Co-op hopes to serve….Of the 1,157 surveys mailed, 1,089 were deliverable. A reminder postcard and a second mailing were sent to non-respondents at two-week intervals. Recipients were given the option of returning the survey by mail or completing it online. The SRC received 471 responses…for a 43 percent response rate. The response exceeded expectations and surpassed the goal of 347 responses needed for a confidence interval of plus/minus five percent, which is a widely accepted standard for statistical analysis. Given an estimated number of households in the portion of Crawford County that 3C Co-op is targeting, 3,605, the margin of error for this dataset is +/- 4.2 percent with 95 percent confidence. Because not every respondent answered every question in the survey, the confidence interval for individual questions may be greater than +/-4.2 percent.”

The survey documented the service available, the needs for service of those being surveyed and host of other things related to high speed broadband internet service in Crawford County. The results are enlightening to anyone interested in the situation.

Armed with this knowledge, the 3C Co-op moved forward to design a detailed plan to deliver fiber optic cable to the premises. The co-op worked with an engineering firm on creating the plan and partnered with Vernon Communications to gain the services needed to run the system.

No one is more enthusiastic about the plan than 3C Co-op President jay McCloskey.

“No one wants to stand in the way of business or education,” McCloskey told the Crawford County Board at their November meeting. “The lack of affordable high speed internet or broadband is a crisis in Crawford County.

“There  are 3,605 residences and businesses in Crawford County that don’t have access to broadband.

“The situation is every bit as critical as it would be if the locations didn’t have access to electricity.

“Fundamentally this is an infrastructure issue that deserves planning that is as essential as the planning that resulted in Crawford County’s electrical infrastructure.

“In less than the time it would take to build the first wireless internet tower, Crawford County could  establish a Broadband Study Committee to develop the plan for our internet infrastructure and begin implementing the plan.

“Crawford County needs a solid plan to cure its crisis, not a Band-Aid to patch the problem.

“3C Co-op established a partnership with Vernon Communications Co-op over two years ago. We have developed an engineering plan and cost analysis.

“For the cost of building eight miles of two-lane highway in Crawford County, we can build the fiber-optic infrastructure that would enable broadband internet for every home and business.

“For the cost of maintaining Crawford County’s roads for five years, we can build the internet infrastructure that will last us for generations to come. And with no maintenance costs paid by the county.

“As a not-for-profit co-op, the only people that would benefit financially would be its members. Vernon Communications would provision 3C’s infrastructure at a cost to its members of $50 per month for 25 mbps up and 25 mbps down  with speeds up to one gigabyte down and up available, plus phone and entertainment packages.

“Lack of broadband has been a long-term problem in Crawford County, but it took the COVID 19 crisis to reveal how serious our internet crisis is. We have children that have not been able to access online education and adults that cannot access online jobs.

 “3C Co-op is committed to the Rural Internetification of Crawford County.”