CRAWFORD COUNTY - A Bug Tussel proposal to provide wireless internet resurfaced locally last Wednesday, Oct. 28 at the Finance Committee meeting of the Crawford County Board.
Crawford County Clerk Janet Geisler was instructed to place the Bug Tussel presentation and a resolution from Hilbert Communications on the county board meeting agenda. The resolution authorizes a broadband grant application to be submitted to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for Hilbert Communications in partnership with Crawford County.
Asked about the matter on Thursday, Oct. 29, Geisler said she was unclear who asked her to place the Bug Tussel matters on the agenda, but thought it was either Finance Committee Chairperson Duane Rogers or County Board Chairperson Tom Cornford, who attended the Finance Committee meeting.
Rogers said later on Monday, Nov. 2, that he did not ask to have the matter on the agenda. He stated that it was the whole committee that wanted it placed on the agenda. Although when asked if a vote had been taken on the matter, Rogers acknowledged no vote was taken.
Regardless of how the matter actually got there, a revised agenda was issued on Thursday, Oct. 28 with the proposed broadband grant partnership appearing on the Crawford County Board Budget Meeting agenda scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 11.
On Monday, Nov.2, an informational meeting with Bug Tussel representatives present to explain the proposed broadband grant partnership and the cell phone tower project was scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 5 at 1 p.m.
Geisler confirmed on Tuesday, Nov. 3 that she would place notice of the special informational broadband grant partnership meeting on the county board calendar. The county clerk noted attendance at the meeting was voluntary and that it would be available for remote viewing on Zoom.
Documents obtained through the county detail a different plan than the one originally presented by Bug Tussel at an August meeting of Crawford County Board.
The original plan called for the construction of as many as 16 cellphone towers and plans of delivering broadband download speeds ranging from 4.8 mbps (megabytes per second) to 25 mbps throughout the county.
According to a document distributed at that time, costs for the service were discounted by 30 percent for the 2020-21 school year and ranged from monthly fees of $31.99 for 4.8 mbps to $71.99 for 25 mbps. When the costs were adjusted without the 30 percent discount and with monthly equipment fees added, the range of monthly fees was actually $55.71 (4.8mbps) to $110.86 (25 mbps).
The FCC considers 25 mbps down and 3 mbps up the slowest end of broadband internet–some say that standard is outdated and should be raised.
By contrast, a consumer can get a 200 mbps download and a 100 mbps upload from Richland-Grant Telephone Co-op on a fiber optic cable to the premises for $93 per month.
The new revised Bug Tussel-Hilbert plan that will be explained to the board on Thursday has been scaled back to just five new towers to be constructed in the Wauzeka-Steuben area. The plan is focused on the request of that school district to provide broadband internet service to residences, which are currently unserved or underserved by broadband internet. The broadband speeds and prices of the new plan were not listed.
However, the height and locations of the five proposed cellphone towers were provided. One of those proposed 300-foot towers is located on the property of Tom Martin, a Wauzeka-Steuben school board member.
Martin was involved in bringing the first Bug Tussel proposal to the county board in August. The original proposal included a commitment from the county to pay $250, 000 toward the project with the use of a low-interest loan that Bug Tussel would help to arrange. That proposal was ‘unanimously’ approved on voice vote.
However, the action was incorrectly placed on the agenda as a presentation by Bug Tussel CEO Steve Schneider under ‘recognitions or appearances’ without indicating it any sort of action item. Two attorneys citing open meeting advice on the matter and told the Independent-Scout it was not legally posted.
On the advice of Crawford County Corporate Counsel Mark Peterson, the board rescinded the vote at their October meeting.
Language in the current resolution proposing a Hilbert-Crawford County partnership in a broadband grant application appears to be drafted from a Bug Tussel template. The resolution contains references to two committees that do not exist on the Crawford County Board.
Initially, the resolution states, “Crawford County created a Broadband Study Committee to research and gather information to serve the broadband needs of its citizens and businesses, and to encourage providers to invest and provide those services in Crawford County…”
The ‘Broadband Study Committee’ does not exist, according to just about everyone contacted. County Clerk Janet Geisler, County Board Chairperson Tom Cornford, Finance Committee Chairperson Duane Rogers and several others immediately confirmed there was no such committee.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe the resolution was sent to her (Janet Geisler) by Bug Tussel,” Rogers said. “It’s probably something Bug Tussel created.
“We have not done any work on the resolution, they (Bug Tussel), drafted the resolution,” Rogers said. “They will show up and take questions.”
And “(the research and gather(ing) of information to serve broadband needs of…citizens and businesses, and to encourage providers to invest and provide those services in Crawford County.” Did that happen? Apparently not.
Rogers said that other providers. including Mediacom, the 3C Co-op and Century Link, were never contacted.
Mediacom was recently awarded some PSC grants including one in Crawford County to install fiber optic cable to serve residences and businesses in the Village of Eastman, the Village of Mt. Sterling and the Town of Seneca located along or near Highway 27.
The 3C Co-op has done the research to bring fiber optic cable to every unserved and underserved residence and business in the county. The work includes a complete survey of the unserved and underserved conducted by UW-River Falls and a detailed project plan completed by Vernon Communications.
Vernon Communications is also partnered with 3C to handle the technical planning and provision of the broadband internet on fiber optic cable. Like Mediacom, Vernon Communications recently received a grant from the PSC to provide fiber optic cable to residences in Vernon County.
“All we can do is fight until we have the kind of service Richland-Grant Telephone and Vernon Communications are offering to their members,” 3C Vice President Emil Smith said. “We need to be offering all the residents of Crawford County access to fiber to the home.”
“Do we really need to see more cell phone towers dotting the countryside?” Smith asked. “Cell towers compared to fiber optic is an obsolete technology. With the cell tower plan some people may improve their service, but it will never touch fiber optic. The more users there are, the slower the cell tower service becomes.”
The Badger Project’s Peter Cameron pointed out some of the weaknesses of cell tower-provided broadband internet in a story published in the Independent-Scout.
“Some point to wireless options as a way forward,” Cameron wrote. “But wireless is slower than fiber, and can be affected by weather, trees and topography.”
The contact for the currently proposed project came from Bug Tussel at the direction of school officials, according to information supplied to the county by the company.
“The school systems came and requested the proposal be approved,” Cornford said of the original proposal. “It was Tom Martin (from Wauzeka) and two or three others…We didn’t go out and solicit Bug Tussel.”
Neither Wauzeka-Steuben School Board Member Tom Martin nor County Supervisor Gerald Krachey, who represents Wauzeka, responded to requests for comment on the situation.
The new proposal also seems to drop any cost to the county, according to documents supplied to the county by Bug Tussel. The company and/or its sister Hilbert and the PSC appear to be paying for the entire cost of the project. In the earlier project, the county had to pay $250,000.
The project appears to be backed by school officials from Wauzeka-Steuben to correct a lack of internet services for students in virtual learning situations. However, there are no details provided on what exactly would be provided in terms of broadband speeds, when the service would become available, and what would be the cost to the consumer.
Crawford County Supervisor Geri Kozelka, a finance committee member, indicated she wants more information on the proposal.
“We’re going to be getting more information before any decision is made,” Kozelka said. “I don’t think we’ve received enough information to a make a decision.
“Some people are making a lot of money off of this,” Kozelka added.
County Supervisor Wayne Jerrett, a member of the finance committee, thinks if a broadband internet project is needed to help the schoolchildren, it needs to be bid out.
As for the presentation initially scheduled for the County Board Budget Meeting and now apparently moved to a special informational meeting on Thursday, Nov. 5, Jerrett indicated that he was not interested in doing anything right now. Geisler said any action that was to be taken was still scheduled for the county board meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 11.The hastily scheduled informational-only meeting for Thursday, Nov. 5 at 1 p.m. with company officials explaining the proposals and answering questions from the board may provide some answers.