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Committee learns that broadband expansion is possible
In Crawford County
CC admin building

NOTE: The agenda for the June 15 meeting of the Crawford County Board of Supervisors contains an agenda item under recognitions and appearances, ‘Action on partnership agreement with Vernon Communications for broadband extension, and commitment of five percent of project costs estimated at $350,000.’ The meeting begins at 10 a.m., and a Zoom link to participate remotely is available.

CRAWFORD COUNTY - The Crawford County Broadband Committee held its second meeting on Thursday, May 27 and heard two presentations on broadband options.

The meeting, facilitated by Community Development Alternatives Executive Director Dale Klemme, began with a presentation on a broadband project being implemented in Grant County. The two Grant County officials making the presentation appeared virtually.

Shane Drinkwater, the Grant County Information and Technology Director, started the presentation. He explained the situation that has the county planning to install a fiber optic cable ‘loop’ in the county. It is designed to help connect the county’s telecommunications towers used by the sheriff’s department, highway department and others.

The proposed project has its origins in a mistake made in siting a pair of telecommunications towers in the northern part of the county. A miscalculation meant the tower in Boscobel could not communicate with microwave signal with another tower to the west, which would have completed a 10-tower loop in the county. 

Faced with the option of building another tower to complete the system, the county looked at the option of connecting the two towers with fiber optic cable instead.

The IT expert acknowledged it would take a large amount of money to install the fiber optic cable to link 10 towers, but that’s the plan.

Broadband committee member and county board supervisor Don Stirling asked how much will the work cost Grant County?

Drinkwater indicated the Platteville-to-Boscobel fiber optic cable would cost $2.7 million and the full project could cost $7 million

Drinkwater said the project that evolved proposes to link all 10 towers with fiber optic cable providing the necessary redundancy and offering a very functional and secure telecommunications system. 

“The reason we have a loop is that if the cable is cut it will instantly send (the transmission) the other way,” Drinkwater explained

The project is contingent on funding that the county is expecting to get from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Drinkwater provided some of the details of the proposed project including the size of fiber optic cable being used and some of the challenges in sourcing fiber optic cable and conduit as demand for the materials grows.

Installing the fiber optic cable loop will enable Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to use the county’s ‘middle mile’ of fiber optic cable to bring broadband internet into the rural areas of the large county, according to Drinkwater.

Grant County Board Chairperson Robert Keeney also addressed the committee about the financing of the project and the opportunity for the fiber optic cable telecommunications loop to accommodate broadband internet for county residents.

Keeney, like other county and local government officials, is aware the federal government plans to make funding for pandemic relief available. However, like other officials, the Grant County Board Chair is not entirely certain how that funding can be used.

Keeney noted that ARPA funds coming to the county should be about $10 million. Keeney estimated that the entire project, including 10 towers, would cost $16 million. The county is working with Ron Kind’s office to see if the project could be funded through earmarked funds.

Keeney believes that expanding broadband internet and its importance during the pandemic in providing the necessary connection for residents both working and studying at home would probably an acceptable use of the funds.

Keeney said the goal of the project is to create a reliable countywide radio system; interconnect municipalities and government organizations; and ultimately provide expanded broadband internet connectivity.

The immediate goal for 2021 is get the conduit in the ground from Platteville through Lancaster, Fennimore, Muscoda and on to Boscobel. One goal of the project is to provide better connectivity for Southwest Tech and the school districts.

Drinkwater pointed out that his children tell him the internet at school occasionally fails.

Completing the entire project may take three to four years.

Both Keeney and Drinkwater emphasized that the county’s part of improving broadband internet will be providing the ‘middle mile.’

 It will be up to ISPs to deliver the ‘last mile’ to the residences and businesses. The ISP will offer the consumer the product and charge for the service. However, access to the county’s middle mile should enable ISPs to greatly lower their costs and therefore enable them to provide broadband.

The ISPs will compensate the county for access to the middle mile, so there will be some return on investment of for the county.

Committee member Dave Boland, the Seneca School District Administrator, asked Keeney if they were to do the project again was there something they would do differently.

“I don’t think so,” the Grant County Chairperson said in reply to Boland’s question.

Keeney noted that county followed the pattern of Sauk County, which started a similar telecommunications project 18 years ago.

Drinkwater spent some time during the presentation explaining sizes and capabilities of different fiber optic cables. He also explained multiplexing, a procedure that can increase bandwidth by 10 times the original bandwidth available. He noted UW-Platteville used multiplexing to increase bandwidth from 40 gigabits to 400 gigabits. 

Drinkwater said that the county is not planning on multiplexing, but it is an option. 

“It’s nice to have that technology in your hip pocket, if it’s needed in the future,” the Grant County IT Director said.

The Crawford County Broadband Committee’s meeting moderator, Dale Klemme, summed up the presentation by noting Grant County was well ahead of Crawford County.

Committee member Cheryl Mader said she found the presentation interesting.

Following the Grant County presentation, Vernon Communications Cooperative CEO Rod Olson made an in person presentation about the fiber optic cable the telecommunications co-op has been installing in Vernon County and will soon install in Crawford County in a subdivision of Ferryville.

Vernon Communications received a grant from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission earlier this year to install the fiber optic cable in the Eagle Mountain subdivision. It is the seventh grant the co-op has received to help pay for a fiber optic cable project.

Olson, who appeared in person at the meeting, told the committee prior to his presentation that a drawback to the fiber optic loop being discussed in Grant County in his experience is having different ownership of parts of the system. The county owns the loop and ISPs own the rest delivering broadband d to the customers. He said with different ownership it can be unclear who is responsible for fixing a problem when it arises.

In a 13-page handout, titled Vernon Communications Co-op Crawford County Fiber-to-the-Home Project, the current situation was summarized and a plan of action was outlined. Most notably the total project cost was estimated at just shy of $26 million.

In all,  the report noted the project would be available to provide broadband internet to 3,605 unserved or underserved locations in the county. The project was broken down into four phases. In the Phase 1 North Area with 1,164 locations the total cost would be $6,944,893 a PSC grant covering 80 percent would be $5,555,915 and the county and Vernon Communications would put up 20 percent.

Phase 2 East Area, Phase 3 Center Area and Phase 4 South Area would complete the project.

Vernon Communications currently has 8,200 subscriber members. 

“We’ve been at this for a while,” Olson told the committee. “The costs went down and then they went up. One problem is the contractor we use has not had an easy time finding people to work.”

The experienced telecommunication CEO noted that the upcoming PSC grant applications would probably be available only for fiber-to-the-home projects. 

“Fiber-to-the-home will get you going for the next 40 to 50 years,” Olson told the committee.

Olson estimated that 70 percent of those offered service would hook up.

The CEO discussed some of the unknowns of the proposed project, which included using stimulus funds received from the federal government and how much money might be available and what it could be used for.

In addition to PSC Grants and federal stimulus money, there are also Rural Development grants.

Olson noted that a Company called LTD was awarded federal money to provide broadband in some parts of the county, but it is unclear if they can construct what would qualify for the funding.

 The company is largely a fixed wireless provider and the 25 mbps down and 3 mbps  up is insufficient.

Vernon Communications provides 25 mbps down and up for about $50. They offer more speeds from there with 50X50 mbps being slightly more expensive than the 25X25 mbps.

Olson told the committee that the proposed project is contingent on the approval of the Vernon Communications Co-op Board.

“I’ve got to sell it to my board,” the CEO told the committee.

The next round of PSC grants are due by July 27. Olson is confident that if the project is approved by the co-op board, the grant application could be made by the deadline for Phase 1 North Area of Mt. Sterling, Seneca and surrounding areas.

Sensing the urgency of the situation, the Crawford County Broadband Committee moved their scheduled June 8 meeting up to Wednesday, June 2 at 3 p.m. in Room 215 of the Crawford County Administration Building.