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State grant supports broadband expansion in Vernon County
VERNON COMMUNICA-TIONS CEO Rod Olson, right, explains the state of the fiber optic cable net-work in Vernon County at a press conference on Mon-day, June 11 in the coop-eratives Viroqua office as Governor Scott Walker listens.

VERNON COUNTY - Governor Scott Walker and several state officials stopped in Viroqua on Monday to award a $244,701 broadband expansion grant to the Vernon Communications Co-operative.

The money is part of Phase Two of the Broadband Communication Grant Program. The funding provided by the grant will be used by Vernon Communications to place fiber optic cable in rural areas near Viroqua that are underserved in high speed internet access. The project will extend the fiber optic cable to 173 potential locations.

Walker awarded the second round of broadband expansion grants at ceremonies in Viroqua, Eau Claire and Oconto. The three rural areas are just some of the 46 new broadband grants awarded in 33 counties as part of the largest round of broadband expansion grants in state history.

“The Broadband Expansion Grant Program has been highly successful since its creation in 2013, and the work to continue to provide broadband to all corners of the state will continue to be a goal of the Commission,” said Public Service Commission Chairman Lon Roberts. “I applaud Governor Walker’s commitment to connect all Wisconsinites to the internet. With the Governor’s direction, Wisconsin has funded 101 projects in 46 counties, and the Commission will continue to expand on these numbers with an additional $7 million in Broadband Expansion Grants being awarded later this fall.”

The $7.69 million currently being accessed in the second phase of the broadband grant will be matched by another $7.69 million in Phase Three of the Broadband Expansion Grants. The deadline for applying for this funding is July 31. The grants are expected to be awarded in September. Vernon Communications hopes to land one of these Phase Three Grants for further broadband expansion in parts of rural Vernon County not yet served with adequate high-speed internet.

“We want to continue expanding broadband service across Wisconsin, and we increased broadband investments by $35.5 million in this budget to help us accomplish that goal,” Governor Walker said. “By providing another $7.69 million in broadband grants we are helping connect more of our communities. No corner of our state can be left behind.”

As Vernon Communication CEO Rod Olson explained at the event Monday held in the co-op’s Viroqua office, the fiber optic cable being installed now is actually area serviced by Frontier Communications for landline phone service. However, Frontier is not installing fiber optic cable and has little to offer in high-speed internet service.

Vernon Communications first installed fiber optic in Frontier territory some years ago when the co-op wired all of the City of Viroqua. In Phase One and now in Phase Two of the Broadband Expansion Grant Program, Vernon Communications has targeted unconnected residences and businesses in Frontier service areas for installation of fiber optic cable.

Vernon County has fiber optic cable available in most areas, according to Olson. It is supplied by Vernon Communications Co-operative, the Coon Valley Telephone Co-op and the Hillsboro Telephone Company. Small pockets remain not served by the larger company (Frontier).

With Phase One funding, Vernon Communications completed work extending the fiber optic network in the Town of Jefferson, Town of Viroqua and Town of Liberty. In the Phase Two funding, Vernon Communications will continue to expand the fiber optic network in the townships of Liberty, Franklin, Webster, Jefferson and Viroqua.

While landline phone service is subject to government regulation establishing service areas, broadband internet service remains unregulated.

Both Governor Walker and Vernon Communications CEO Rod Olson noted an obvious fact in their presentations about rural broadband internet connectivity. Larger telecommunication companies, like Frontier, Century Tel, ATT and others don’t see an adequate return on investment for installing broadband internet in rural areas with low-density population. The smaller companies can see the return on investment particularly when they are incentivized with things like the state’s broadband expansion grants.

So when will Wisconsin be able to say there is broadband available in every area of the state? Governor Scott Walker said the state’s goal is to have broadband internet access available everywhere in Wisconsin in two years.

This will be a big step forward for rural Wisconsin, which has many places already covered by broadband internet, but must often function under the stigma that the high speed internet does not exist in rural areas of the state.

There will also be direct effects for Crawford County where some areas have state of the art, high-speed broadband internet delivered on fiber optic cable, while other areas struggle with slower speeds and a lack of connectivity to fiber optic cable.

“We have seen a great deal of interest in the grant program, and this round’s awardees should be commended on their dedication to expanding broadband within their communities,” said State Broadband Director, Angie Dickison. “The Broadband Office is happy to help communities looking to improve broadband services. We are always looking to build upon the success of public-private partnerships that are found when expanding broadband in Wisconsin communities.”