By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Two PSC grants sought to expand broadband
For Crawford County

CRAWFORD COUNTY - There are currently two PSC Broadband Expansion Grants for projects in Crawford County that were filed by the December 1, 2020 deadline.

Vernon Communications has submitted a grant application to help them install a fiber-optic-cable-to-the-home system on unserved/underserved subdivision in Ferryville on a bluff above the Mississippi River.

Bug Tussel has filed to get a PSC Broadband Expansion Grant to help them build two towers–one in Wauzeka and the other in Steuben to help create a fixed wireless system to deliver internet.

The technologies to be used in each grant proposal are entirely different. 

Vernon’s fiber-to-home proposes installing a fiberoptic cable with a gigabyte capability. It’s the same system they have installed over vast swathes of Vernon County. A gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes per second (mbps).

Vernon Communication Co-operative would offer the same option and prices it offers all of the co-op members according to CEO Rod Olson. The base option would include 25 mbps download and 25 mbps upload for $49.95 per month. Higher speeds would be available at increased prices, for instance 50 mbps down and 50 mbps up is $77.95.

Bug Tussel’s proposal for a broadband expansion grant in the Wauzeka-Steuben area is substantially different from Vernon Communications. Instead of fiber optic cable to the home, Bug Tussel proposes to use a fixed wireless system with antennas mounted on the two towers and smaller antennas on receivers in the homes or businesses.

The maximum speed available from the fixed wireless system Bug Tussel is proposing is a 100 mbps download and a 20 mbps upload. That’s a download speed one tenth of the maximum offered by Vernon and an upload speed that’s one fiftieth (1/50) of Vernon’s maximum upload speed.

Bug Tussel quoted no price for 100 mbps down and 20 mbps up in the grant application. However, at an informational meeting of the Crawford County Board last fall, Bug Tussel CEO Steve Schneider said the cost of this “business package” was $200 per month and required a long-term contractual commitment.

Bug Tussel’s basic package would offer a 25 mbps download and a 5 mbps upload at a cost $49.99 per month for the required time to the addresses of the proposed coverage areas, according to the application. . Yet, Bug Tussel previously advertised the 30-percent discounted price for this speed in the 2020-2021 school year was $71.99, according to promotional materials provided at meeting last fall. So, without the 30-percent discount, Bug Tussel would have charged $102.86 per month.

At the informational meeting with the county board, Schneider said that the Wisconsin Public Service Commission Broadband Expansion Grant required broadband speed (currently defined by the FCC as 25 down and 3 up) be offered for under $50. 

However, PSC Director of Broadband Jaron McCallum indicated that the current PSC broadband grants do not dictate any sort of price nor is there a “required time” that any sort of price be offered.

Bug Tussel could not be reached for comment on the price and “required time” statements made in their grant application.

The actual Broadband Expansion Grant Program Priority Factors set forth in state statute are: 

• Matching Funds

• Public-Private Partnerships

• Unserved Areas (Existing Broadband Service)

• Scalability

• Economic Development

• Effect upon Broadband Service to Adjacent Areas

• Project Impact

Incidentally, both broadband grant applications address these priority factors.

Vernon Communications is seeking a grant of $172,900 and providing matching funds of $179,950. The public partner for the grant is the Village of Ferryville.

The project proposes to offer service to 58 residences and eight businesses with the future possibility of another 72 locations. The grant application states 41 of the residences are unserved as are the eight businesses.

“Vernon Communications Co-op serves over 7,900 cooperative members located within 541 square miles in Vernon, Richland, Monroe, and Crawford counties in western Wisconsin. VC Co-op’s borders the CenturyLink serving area in this application,” according to the co-op.

The Bug Tussel grant application lists the Village of Wauzeka, the Village of Steuben, as well as the Wauzeka-Steuben School District as public partners. Bug Tussel is seeking a grant of $274,464 and would  provide $335,456 in matchings funds. The proposed project would provide access to 334 residences and 14 businesses. Of those, it would serve 74 residences that are currently unserved, as are the 14 businesses.

It is interesting to note that current FCC definition of broadband speed of 25 mbps down and 3 mbps up was created in 2015. It replaced the previous standard 4 mbps down/1mbps up created in 2010. Many knowledgeable experts now believe the 25/3 standard is substandard because the slow upload speed can’t support two users having two-way communication like distance learning or working from home requires. 

One of those questioning the 25/3 standard as outdated is Jonathan Chambers, a partner in the Kansas City-based Conexon–a company dedicated to expanding rural fiber optic networks. An American Libraries Association News article by Jed Pressgrove quoted Chambers on the subject.

Chambers said the 25/3 definition represented what “the telephone industry told the federal government it was capable of delivering with digital subscriber line (DSL).” 

Chambers described the 25/3 threshold as more of a “negative definition,” given that technology, such as a fiber-optic network, can offer far greater speeds. He said 25/3 is too low of a bar for spending tax dollars. 

“It’s a bad choice for the government to keep buying substandard service,” Chambers said. “It’s the reason why rural America was unprepared for the COVID-19 crisis.”

Wisconsin PSC Broadband Director Jaron McCallum indicated that the likelihood of an area receiving a second PSC broadband expansion grant was not likely given the competition for the grants. However, he acknowledged if an area qualified with unserved and underserved locations, it would have the right to apply even it had previously received a grant.