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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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IMPROVING CONNECTIVITY - Bringing high speed Broadband Internet service to everyone, regardless of where they live or work, is a goal of government at all levels in Wisconsin and all across the nation. At a meeting in Marinette County Courthouse on Thursday, Nov. 16, State Broadband Director Angie Dickison, center, presented the award held by Kevin Solway, recognizing the Town of Stephenson's achievement in becoming one of the first 16 Wisconsin municipalities certified as a "Broadband Forward Community." Solway, a supervisor on Stephenson Town Board and head of the Marinette County Information Services Department, had set up the meeting, but the award was a happy surprise. Shown left to right are Marinette County Board Chair Mark Anderson; Peter Johnson, Sr., CenturyLink; State Rep. Jeff Mursau of Crivitz; Jessica Kuhn, Sales and Marketing Director for Packerland Broadband; Dickison; Solway; Century Link Area Operations Manager Wally Purdun and Michael Repinski, Supervisor of Regional Operations for Century Link. Not shown are Marinette County Administrator John LeFebvre, County Librarian Jennifer Thiele, and UWEX Community Resource Development Agent Ellen Geisler, all of whom serve with Solway on the county's informal Broadband Expansion Committee and were meeting participants.

County, Town, State Working To Improve Internet Service

Issue Date: November 22, 2017

Angie Dickison, director of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission's State Broadband Office, came to Marinette County Courthouse on Thursday, Nov. 16 to meet with Marinette County and Town of Stephenson officials on their mutual goal of expanding high speed Internet service to all areas of the town and county.

The meeting was arranged by Kevin Solway, who serves as both a supervisor on the Stephenson Town Board and as director of Marinette County's Information Services Department.

Solway said he initially set the meeting up for the town's broadband expansion efforts, but because of the county's interest he had invited county officials and local state legislators to participate, along with representatives of the two companies that provide broadband service in Marinette County.

Among those who accepted the invitation were Marinette County Board Chair Mark Anderson; County Administrator John LeFebvre, County Library Director Jennifer Thiele, UWEX Community Resource Development Agent Ellen Geisler, (all of whom serve with Solway on the county's Broadband Committee), State Rep. Jeff Mursau of Crivitz; plus provider representatives Peter Johnson, Sr., Senior Engineer for Northeast Wisconsin for CenturyLink; Jessica Kuhn, Sales and Marketing Director for Packerland Broadband; Century Link Area Operations Manager Wally Purdun and Michael Repinski, Supervisor of Regional Operations for Century Link.

At visioning sessions earlier this year Marinette County Board had identified expanding broadband service to underserved areas of the county as a main goal, both for improving the quality of life and for improving prospects for economic growth. Solway has been working with both the county and the town on those goals.

As a surprise at the meeting, Dickison presented Solway with a certificate and plaque saluting the Town of Stephenson for achieving certification as an official Wisconsin Broadband Forward! Community, one of the first 15 since the program began in July of 2016.

Among other things, certification requires adopting an ordinance that streamlines the local permitting process and reduces obstacles. Certification recognizes the community's readiness for broadband expansion and hopefully will encourage private providers to expand their services there, Dickison commented.

She stressed that broadband expansion is also a high priority of Wisconsin's Governor Scott Walker and the state legislature. The governor had held listening sessions in all 72 counties earlier this year and at all but one of them, broadband expansion had been identified as a high priority need. She said the state budget includes provisions for state grants that are available to help promote public-private partnerships to improve broadband access across the state.

Solway said the town's efforts for broadband expansion came as a response to requests from numerous property owners, business owners and Lake Associations, who told them lots of people would like to "live up there, vacation up there, and work from up there," but need high speed connectivity to do it.

"I firmly believe that technology is going to grow and grow, and without it, we aren't going to succeed," Solway declared. "The town is willing to put some effort into this."

Marinette county Administrator LeFebvre said a couple of things were identified as goals during the County Board visioning sessions this year, but the item that ranked highest was broadband connectivity. He said he and his recently appointed County Broadband Committee have been looking at maps on the WPSC website that show where there is and is not high speed internet service. He plans to distribute those maps at the Wisconsin Towns Association meeting on Thursday, Dec. 14 to gain more information on areas where broadband is most needed. He said with the county GIS information they can determine where population is highest within the underserved areas and start there to promote expansion.

"We hope the providers will sit down with us and let us know what's available," he declared. He expressed hope the county will be ready to apply for a state and/or federal grant in the next grant cycle. He said getting reliable high speed internet service to all parts of Marinette County is difficult, because geographically it is the third largest county in the state and includes vast tracts of County Forest Land, where there are no residents.

However, he added,"We think it (Internet connectivity) is very important for economic growth, and we believe broadband is very important for that."

Dickinson saluted both the county and the town for their efforts. She said the recently passed state budget includes $35.5 million for broadband expansion, which is important not only for economic growth but also for education.

Among grants available are those through the TEACH program and the Department of Administration to provide infrastructure for schools and training for teachers. There is a goal to have WIFII service available on school busses so students can do their homework while traveling to and from school.

"Broadband expansion is absolutely a priority of the governor," Dickison repeated,"And the Broadband Forward program is a step in that direction."

She said on the national level, broadband was second on a list of goals identified.

The next state grant application cycle, with a deadline of Jan. 5, will award $7.5 million in broadband grant awards. Applications are due by June of 2018 for the next cycle, which will award another $7.5 million. In addition, the state has marked $2 million for on-going broadband grant funding, Dickison said, and thanked the Legislature for doing that.

She then presented Solway with the unexpected proclamation by Gov. Walker declaring Town of Stephenson as an officially certified Wisconsin "Broadband Forward!" Community. She said it is her goal to bring BroadbandForward to every part of the state, and encourage private providers to expand in areas that are certified ready for them.

"We certainly want to put the carpet out for private investors," Solway declared.

State Rep. Jeff Mursau recalled discussions with the Town of Dunbar not long ago because the seem to be "in a hole," where it was really hard for them to get internet or cell phone service. He felt they could particularly benefit from broadband connectivity.

Mursau asked if there was anything eye catching that should be put on grant applications. Dickison said the decision makers look at several major factors, including public/private partnerships, impact on the community (the number of folks to be served), ability of students to access education and older residents to access health care, and impact on economic growth.

She invited anyone preparing an application to call her office for assistance and advice.

As to Packerland and CenturyLink, who had representatives at the meeting, "Both companies in this room have done a fantastic job," Dickison declared. She said to her, public/private partnerships show that the community is invested. She suggested, however, that letters of support from local businesses, government entities and educators "are what sell the project."

Mursau asked if it is the responsibility of the towns to find out where a project will work, and was told the towns should do some of the footwork.

CenturyLink Senior Engineer Peter Johnson, Sr. said his company already knows where the weak spots and the strong spots are in the Town of Stephenson, for example, "but it's really up to the town to decide what they want next... how to develop it in the direction they want it to grow."

Purdun said the grant program and the public/private partnership work very well together.

"A grant gives us the push to go forward, to make it financially feasible, because we have to make a profit," he said.

LeFebvre said there are many ways the government entities and the companies can work together, for example when the companies apply for permits the Highway Department has information on easements and other utility routes, but the private companies can give information on areas served.

Purdun described some grant projects his company has worked with in other parts of Wisconsin and spoke briefly of the Connect America Fund (known as CAF) from which one exchange in Marinette County will get funding next year.

"We've already started putting fiber in parts of Marinette, the Town of Peshtigo, Town of Grover and City of Peshtigo that will be turned on next spring or early next summer.

CenturyLink put fiber into the Peshtigo Industrial Park the previous year, Johnson said.

"Broadband grants (from the state) fill in very well where CAF funds don't reach," Purdun commented.

Dickison agreed the state helps the companies get into areas they might not serve otherwise, but once there they run the service with no more expense to the state.

Dickison assured LeFebvre the data on the WPSC web site is all from the FCC and is regularly updated,so the maps his committee has been downloading for distribution to the towns is accurate.

Geisler asked how the state's "Forward" certification compares with the resolution favoring broadband expansion that County Board passed in 2007.

Dickison said Broadband Forward actually is an ordinance that is passed that simplifies the grant process and remove other pieces of red tape. Resolutions, like the ones the counties passed in 2007, "are more of a - yes, come," while the ordinance is a guarantee."

Anderson wondered what population density would be needed to make it work. He was told that can vary. Cost ranges from $25,000 to $32,000 per mile of fiber, but cost of installation in the Crivitz/Twin Bridge area will be high because much of it will need to go through rock, "which is extremely expensive - over $50,000 a mile."

Mursau asked how many customers it would take to make it work. Johnson felt that depends on how much they need to invest versus the number of customers they can get. He added for the first three or four years they barely get paid back the cost of the infrastructure. Purdun felt with 100 to 125 customers they would start to get payback in five to seven years."""If we waited for 125 customers, no one in rural areas would ever get service," Johnson declared. He said if a business wants high speed internet and are willing to pay for it, "everyone along the way benefits," because it becomes available to them too.

Kuhn said her company faces challenges similar to those described by the CenturyLink representatives, and said they also do plan to seek a few grants.

"Planning for technology infrastructure is exactly what I would recommend for all communities," Dickison advised in the wake of discussion on coming improvements in wireless service and how that might affect investments in broadband.

She said First Net wireless service is now used for first responders' connectivity, "so there is potential on the horizon for additional mobile connectivity as well."

Just about everyone predicted there will be technology changes in coming years that cannot even be foreseen now.

Solway asked the Packerland and CenturyLink representatives to meet with him and the county and/or town representatives on forming a public/private partnership, and was assured they are very interested.


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