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No promises, Dickison offers path to broadband

A crowd of twenty residents and town officials gathered at the Star Prairie Town Hall last Tuesday, June 26, 2018, for an opportunity to question Wisconsin Broadband Director Angie Dickison about improving local broadband service. Dickison's visit was arranged by State Representative Rob Stafsholt. Tom Lindfors / RiverTown Multimedia

Some 20 residents and town officials gathered at the Star Prairie Town Hall Tuesday, June 26, 2018, for an opportunity to question Wisconsin Broadband Director Angie Dickison about improving local service.

Dickison's visit was arranged by state Rep. Rob Stafsholt and marks Madison's most recent effort to hold face-to-face meetings with western Wisconsin on the topic of broadband access.

It was noted early on that local area broadband providers were invited to attend the meeting, but none was present.

The primary program Wisconsin offers to help communities improve access is the Broadband Expansion Grant Program operated by the Public Service Commission. Only specifically defined organizations or units of government partnered with telecommunication utilities can apply.

Dickison explained that Gov. Scott Walker's administration has funded the program to the tune of nearly $13.1 million since its inception in 2014. Nearly half of the money, $7 million, is accounted for in the current round of applications due July 16.

"Rural broadband access had been a priority for folks within the governor's office and the Legislature. We're happy to talk about the programs that we have that have been funded especially through this last budget," Dickison said.

By comparison, Frontier Communications received $186 million through phase two of the Federal Communications Commission's Connect America Fund to build out broadband access to 76,000 locations in Wisconsin by 2020. AT&T and CenturyLink shared another $394 million to extend access to an additional 154,000 Wisconsin locations.

Resident Warren Wood put into words the sentiment shared by in the room: "There's nobody here from Frontier Communications. We have a problem with our telecommunications company. They do real well at cashing checks every month but they do very little providing service. To tell you the truth, I don't know if they are giving us true information about the fact that they are attempting to get some of this federal money to use at the local level out at the New Richmond office. That's what we'd like to know."

"I can absolutely follow up on that, but with a caveat, they are not required to tell me anything, but I can certainly ask. And seeing now that we're in 2018 and they've got until the end of 2020 to build out, perhaps we'll be able to get a little bit more information," Dickison responded.

Urban edge

A number of audience members commented that to the untrained observer, much of the past funding seems to have been awarded to projects serving urban communities.

Two recently funded projects provide a guide when it comes to illustrating how far a dollar will go when it comes to installing broadband infrastructure, in these specific cases, for fiber optic cable applications.

The first project will install two miles of fiber optic cable through a business district in Oconto Falls and the second will install eight miles of fiber optic cable near Sheboygan Falls in 2019. Nsight Telservices received a grant worth $49,230 through the PSC's Broadband Expansion Program for the Oconto Falls project. Including the PSC grant, the total investment for both projects is $713,000. That works out to $71,300 per mile of cable installed. At that rate, the current PSC grant fund would account for about 100 total miles of fiber cable installation.

"Our hope is that our state money makes the larger federal investment go further and reach areas that might not otherwise see improvement. I'm hopeful about future funding for the program," Dickison said.

The high cost to lay cable would seem to incentivise telecommunications companies to install cable in urban settings where they can contract more customers (users) per mile, get more bang for their buck.

Grants awarded through the PSC expansion program can only be used to provide infrastructure which as Dickison explained excludes satellite.

"Our program funds infrastructure. That could be fiber, that could cable, that could be fixed wireless service, even TV white space which we've funded as well in the last two rounds. Not satellite. In terms of satellite, we're not talking about an infrastructure investment in the community as much as funding a service," Dickison said.

How it works

Dickison explained how the PSC's Broadband Expansion Grant program works.

The grants are matching grants, meaning applicant's must match the funds awarded by the state in cash, salary expense, or in-kind contributions. To be eligible to apply for a PSC grant, the applicant must be a for profit or not for profit organization, a telecommunications utility, or a political subdivision (city, village, town or county) that submits an application in partnership with an eligible applicant as defined by the first two criteria.

According to state statute 196.504(2)(c), "Projects that include matching funds, that involve public-private partnerships, that affect unserved areas, that are scalable, that promote economic development, that will not result in delaying the provision of broadband service to areas neighboring areas to be served by the proposed project, or that affect a large geographic area or a large number of underserved individuals or communities will be given priority. When evaluating grant applications the commission will also consider the degree to which the proposed projects would duplicate existing broadband infrastructure; the impacts of the proposed projects on the ability of individuals to access health care services from home and the cost of those services; and the impacts of the proposed projects on the ability of students to access educational opportunities from home."

One resident personalized the very real costs of poor broadband access in the age of online education.

"My son-in-law flunked out of an online college that was extremely expensive just because he couldn't upload his assignment to them because his connection kept timing out. More kids are starting to do these online schools. We're hurting our kids," she said.

Of the 46 PSC grants awarded in 2018 in Round 2 for broadband expansion in Wisconsin, three of those projects were located in St. Croix County. Two grants were awarded to Northwest Communications totaling $259,000 for projects in the Towns of Saint Joseph and Somerset and one grant was awarded to NextGen Communications totaling $60,000 for a project in the Town of Forest.

"On our website you can see every application that was ever submitted to our program for the projects that were funded and the projects that weren't. If you're really interested in putting together a grant application, I'd say get in touch with us. We can help you, give you ideas about projects that may be similar to what you are looking at doing," Dickison said.

Alternatives

According to Carlson Wireless Technologies, TV white space refers to the unused channels between the active ones in the VHF and UHF spectrum. These are typically referred to as the "buffer" channels. In the past, these buffers were placed between active TV channels to protect broadcasting interference. It has since been researched and proven that this unused spectrum can be used to provide broadband internet access while operating harmoniously with surrounding TV channels.

"I think white space is a really good tool for our area. It's being held up at the federal level by FCC. So myself and about 20 other senators and Assembly people from both sides of the aisle drafted a letter asking the FCC to open that up so we can transmit broadband on that white space. That's another tool in our toolbox. I think there will be more and more tools," Stafsholt said.

Dickison encouraged audience members to begin putting together a grant application for the next round of grants in 2019.

"I would absolutely encourage the town to talk to providers. What ever you can do to get organized, get started if nothing else. If you need help connecting with providers both locally and around the state including ones that are offering TV white space or fixed wireless types of opportunities that might be interested in moving into this area, I'd be happy to make some introductions to help you get started," Dickison said. "What we've seen across the state if you look at where our grants have been awarded, they appear to be clustered. The reason for that is a community started working with a provider in one area and kept expanding on that network build out. That is one of the priorities for evaluating grant applications, is the ability of a project, to be expanded."

She concluded by encouraging folks to include their personal stories with their application.

"Our process allows for public comment. So to the extent that improved broadband access for your community allows better access to education, to health care, allows telecommuting, improves your property values in areas where you're seeing folks making decision to move away or not purchase, I encourage folks to tell those stories. We read those. It's meaningful to me when I read those letters, because what I see is, not only is there a provider looking to build out infrastructure in a community, there are folks who are really going to use that network and by using it it makes the whole operation successful."

For more information about the PSC Broadband Expansion Grant Program visit the PSC website at psc.wi.gov/Pages/Programs/BroadbandGrants.aspx.

For more information about the FCC Connect America Program visit the FCC website at fcc.gov/general/connect-america-fund-caf.

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