CRAWFORD COUNTY - It’s no secret that residents of rural Wisconsin lag behind the nation in access to the broadband internet that is crucial to allowing work, learning, economic development and attracting young people back to stay where they grew up. In fact, this is hardly news.
More than 40 percent of rural residents lack access to high speed internet, ac-cording to the Public Ser-vice Commission of Wisconsin. Nationally, about 31 percent of rural households lack access. Actual percentages might even be higher due to poor FCC mapping, experts say.
There is no question that the urgency of this situation became amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic which drove K-12 and university students to learn from home last spring, and workers to work from home. It is encouraging to know that the Crawford County Board of Supervisors feels the urgency of this situation.
“The county board has been discussing this broadband situation for a long time,” County Board Supervisor Mary Kuhn told the Independent-Scout. “Hopefully, our county’s broadband issues will be alleviated now that the board has decided to do whatever is necessary to correct this situation.”
‘Whatever is necessary’ has come in the form of a county board vote at their August meeting to lend general support to a proposal from a Green Bay company, called Bug Tussel. The proposal approved by the board involves building 16, 300-foot-tall, cell phone towers in every area of the county. It will involve the county borrowing $250,000 to make the project happen.
Crawford County Clerk Janet Geisler confirmed that in the agenda item listed on the board’s Tuesday, August 18 meeting agenda, in the ‘Recognitions and Appearances’ portion of the agenda, the board had decided to take a vote on the matter.
“Gerry Krachey made the motion and Wade Dull seconded it,” Geisler said. “Although it was a voice vote, and not a roll call vote, it was considered unanimous because no one voted no.”
When asked if this solution being offered by Bug Tussel would be available in a time frame to address the issues our community is facing with COVID-19, Supervisor Mary Kuhn, who is also the president of the North Crawford School Board, had this to say:
“The broadband internet from the Bug Tussel tower plan the board approved will not be available this fall, or in the winter/spring of 2021, and will not address the issues citizens and students are facing now with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kuhn said. “However, North Crawford Superintendent Brandon Munson would like to see this available by September 1 when students return to school.”
Haves and have nots
For those in the county fortunate enough to be served with Richland Grant Telephone Cooperative’s (RGTC) ‘fiber-optic-cable-to-the-front-door’ broadband internet, prices for broadband are very affordable, and the speeds available are comparable to those available in more urban areas.
The fiber optic delivery system is safe, secure, and reliable. It was delivered to our rural area the same way that electricity and a telephone were put in every home and barn – by cooperatives. It seems that cooperatives have come through for rural areas, when the big companies decide that they don’t have enough customers to make delivering the service worth their while.
The Independent-Scout has broadband internet from RGTC. For a 200 mega-bytes-per-second (mbps) download, and 100 mbps upload, the monthly price from RGTC is $93.
The Bug Tussel proposal approved by the board lists the following prices, discounted by 30 percent, in their brochure, and for the following levels of service:
• 4.8 mbps for $31.99 ($41.59 full price)
• 9.6 mbps for $47.99 ($62.39 full price)
• 14.4 mbps for $55.99 ($72.79 full price)
• 25 mbps for $71.99 ($93.59 full price)
When the Independent-Scout contacted Wauzeka-Steuben school board member Tom Martin to discuss the situation, Martin seemed shocked to learn what kind of internet was available to some county residents from RGTC.
“I knew that some county residents could get it, while others of us can’t,” Martin said. “But I had no idea that what RGTC members were getting was so fast, and so affordable.”
It was Martin who first worked on the proposal with Bug Tussel, and took the company’s CEO Steve Schneider to the Crawford County Board’s Finance Committee meeting. It is the Finance Committee that determines what will appear on the agenda for county board meeting.
The recent Crawford County Board approval of a Bug Tussel proposal to provide ‘broadband’ cell tower internet in the county has raised questions about the decision and how the matter was listed on board meeting agenda.
Two attorneys familiar with open meetings law stated that in their opinion proper notice of the pending decision was not provided on the Crawford County Board Agenda for the meeting held Tuesday, August 18.
Madison attorney James Friedman explained the brief information included under the heading of ‘Recognitions and Appearances’ on the agenda was not sufficient to alert the public that the board was going to vote on approving the company as a broadband provider for the county and potentially committing the county to pay $250,000 as part of the deal.
Attorney George Wilbur, who practices in La Farge and serves as the Whitestown Board Chairperson, also stated that what appeared in the Crawford County Board Agenda violated the open meetings guidance of what constitutes proper notice.
The notice on the county board agenda under the heading of ‘Recognitions and Appearances,’ read ‘Appearance of Steve Schneider, Bug Tussell Wireless re: Broadband.’
The 2019 edition of the ‘Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide’ created by the Office of Open Government as part of the Wisconsin Department of Justice includes the following guidance on proper notice of items to be discussed and/or acted upon during a meeting:
“The Wisconsin Court of Appeals has noted that ‘Wis. Stat. § 19.84(2) does not expressly require that the notice indicate whether a meeting will be purely deliberative or if action will be taken.’153The Buswell decision inferred from this that ‘adequate notice . . . may not require information about whether a vote on a subject will occur, so long as the subject matter of the vote is adequately specified.’154 Both in Olson and in Buswell, however, the courts reiterated the principle—first recognized in Badke155—that the information in the notice must be sufficient to alert the public to the importance of the meeting, so that they can make an informed decision whether to attend.156The Olson decision thus acknowledged that, in some circumstances, a failure to expressly state whether action will be taken at a meeting could be a violation of the open meetings law.157Although the courts have not articulated the specific standard to apply to this question, it appears to follow from Buswell that the test would be whether, under the particular factual circumstances of the case, the notice reasonably alerts the public to the importance of the meeting.158”
The recent action involving Bug Tussel at the Crawford County Board Meeting involves several actions that would seem to violate the state’s Open Meeting Law Guidance.
The matter was initially brought before the Crawford County Board’s Finance Committee by Tom Martin, a Wauzeka-Steuben School Board Member, who contacted Bug Tussell to find out if they could provide better internet access.
Martin explained that poor internet access at residences in the district had hampered the school’s ability to provide online virtual education to the students after in-person learning at the school was suspended in March due to the pandemic.
At the Finance Committee Meeting, Bug Tussell CEO Steven Schneider made a presentation. He noted that the company was providing internet access in Lafayette, Green, Iowa and Richland counties, as well as other counties in the state and would like do the same in Crawford and Grant counties.
At the Finance Committee meeting, Schneider said he wanted go before the county board with his proposal to seek their approval before he went forward with any more planning, according to Martin.
At the Finance Committee meeting, Schneider had handouts showing potential locations in circles of coverages for 16 cell phone towers.
Even though, Schneider specifically stated he would seek approval of his plan at the board meeting when he discussed it with the Finance Committee, the board agenda made no reference to the approval he was seeking or that voting on such a matter was planned.
Crawford County Board Chairperson Tom Cornford attended the Finance Committee meeting and has confirmed that Schneider’s purpose in coming to the board meeting on August 18 was to get the support of the county board. Cornford also noted that representatives of school boards in the surrounding area were at the board meeting with support for the Bug Tussel plan.
At the Finance Committee meeting, Schneider indicated he wanted to have unanimous support from the county board, according to Martin.
“He (Schneider) seems genuine,” Martin said. “He was very transparent. He said, ‘If I don’t have you all voting yes, I’m not coming here’.”
Schneider confirmed to the Independent-Scout on Tuesday, Aug. 25 that he was not interested in building the cell tower internet system here, if “there’s no mandate.”
The CEO said he did not want to waste his time working on the plan if was not supported by county residents.
Were other potential broadband providers approached?
Martin said a North East Iowa Information and Technology Company was contacted. However, he said they did not seem interested in working in Wisconsin.
Martin did not make contact with Century Link, a major area provider of broadband internet. He noted that several people said it was not worth even trying to contact the company.
Martin did not contact Media Com, a cable provider in the county that provides broadband internet access. He said that he had heard “horror stories” about the company.
The 3C Co-op, which did a broadband survey and has done work with Vernon Communications on a plan to provide fiber-optic-cable-to-the home in unserved and underserved Crawford County was also not contacted, according to Martin. Vernon Communication and Richland Grant Telephone Co-op were also not contacted.
Wi-Connect, an internet provider working locally in Mt. Sterling as well as in other unserved and underserved rural areas of Southwest Wisconsin, was also not contacted.
“In talking to people at CESA #3, they (Bug Tussel) were the only vendor that came up,” Martin said. He is employed by the Cooperative Educational Services Agency #3 in Fennimore.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Martin said. “It’s not like there’s a bevy of vendors out there.”
Board chairperson Cornford said he did not know if other providers and been contacted.
In order to build cell phone towers in Crawford County, Bug Tussel will need to apply for and be awarded permits from the county’s Zoning Committee.
“We do not have any permit applications from Bug Tussel,” Crawford County Conservationist Dave Troester said. “The only contact we’ve had to date was a phone call asking general questions about our ordinance, where to find it, etc.”
Other counties in our area have experienced Bug Tussel’s full-court-press to build these towers in recent years. Citizens in Vernon and Richland counties have objected to the company’s plan to put these towers in all corners of their counties with mixed results. Richland County seems to have accepted the plans and approved all of the permit applications presented to their zoning committee. Vernon County has approved some, denied one, and township citizens have fought and stalled applications in other areas.
In Vernon County, Bug Tussel is building the towers, but AT&T will have their cellular phone equipment located on the towers, as well as the transmitters for the national first responders communication network ‘First Net.’
Schneider told the Independent-Scout that Bug Tussel does not have the First Net contract with AT&T for Crawford County, but would rent space on the towers for that purpose if approached. Tower space for other users would also be available to rent, the CEO confirmed.
Members of the Richland County Public Safety Committee have insisted that cooperating with the national roll out of AT&T’s First Net is crucial for first responders in the area.
However, the Vernon County’s Sheriff’s Department has had another story to tell recently. As reported in LaFarge’s ‘Episcope’ newspaper.
“Nate Campbell from the Vernon County Sheriff’s Department attended the May 12 meeting of the county’s zoning committee. He was there to ask why it is so expensive to co-locate on a Bug Tussel tower. He said that the department had explored the cost, and because it is so expensive, are considering building their own tower. The cost to co-locate on a Bug Tussel tower, he said, would be $1,605 per month or $124,581 over the five years of the lease.”
“At the same meeting, the Vernon County Board Zoning Committee met with two new members. Those new members are Ole Yttri and Adrian Amelse. A public hearing was held on a proposed Bug Tussel cell tower in the Town of Genoa.
Bug Tussel’s Chris Henshue was there, and no citizens participated in the hearing. He told the committee that they now have nine of the planned 26 towers in Vernon County ‘alive,’ with 12 more being built-but not yet in service.
Committee member Will Beitlich had questions about trenching, which he said would run across his property. After 23 minutes of discussion, a vote was taken by the committee on the permit application. Amelse, Yttri and Beitlich voted no and the permit was denied.
The Vernon County Town of Stark had already adopted a zoning ordinance prohibiting construction of cell phone towers that were more than 200-feet-tall many years ago.
“We thought we had the tower on Stark Township beat in 2019 when the county returned the $3,000 permit application fee because our township had a zoning ordinance that prohibits construction of cell phone towers higher than 200 feet,” Lonnie Muller said. “Then, the next thing we knew, the Munson Tower on Maple Ridge was built and the town must have given them permission.”
Vernon County Board supervisor Gail Muller said that she and her husband had been present at the meeting of the Vernon County Zoning Committee when the permit for the Stark Township tower was discussed.
“Bug Tussel’s Chris Henshue was there along with their CEO Steve Schneider, and their corporate attorney,” Gail Muller remembered. “Straight out of the gate the company was threatening the county with litigation if the permits were not approved.”
Vernon County’s Town of Harmony Board voted unanimously in July of 2019 to uphold the unanimous recommendation of the town’s zoning committee to deny Bug Tussel a conditional use permit needed to construct a 300-foot, guy-wired cell phone tower on the Todd Whistler property adjacent to Fauske Lane.
At the meeting of the Town of Harmony Zoning Committee, Bug Tussel’s Chris Henshue, Business Representative for Site Acquisition in Vernon and LaCrosse counties, spoke to the committee in favor of them granting the conditional use permit. He gave a brief description of the proposed tower and the value it would provide to the region.
Following Henshue’s comments, 13 residents from the Town of Harmony and one person from outside the township, spoke against granting the conditional use permit.
The five members of the Town of Harmony Zoning Committee voted unanimously to advise the Harmony Town Board to decline the issuance of a conditional use permit to Bug Tussel Wireless to construct a tower on the Todd Whistler property adjacent to Fauske Lane.Vernon County’s Town of Whitestown has successfully stalled the company’s bid to put a tower there. Town Board Chairperson George Wilbur reports that after numerous back and forth negotiations and public meetings, “we’ve heard nothing further.”