County Board OKs $60,000 For Broadband Grant Project
Marinette County, in partnership with Packerland Broadband, will be competing for a share of the $7.5 million to be awarded by the State of Wisconsin in the first half of this year for projects aimed at bringing high speed internet to underserved rural areas of the state.
Without dissent, the 21 supervisors present for a special Marinette County Board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 23 authorized paying up to $60,000 to partner with Packerland for the venture.
The proposal had been endorsed by County Board's Finance and Economic Development and Tourism Committees after in-depth explanations and discussions at separate meetings on Monday, Jan. 15. The special board meeting on Jan. 23 was scheduled because deadline to apply for this round of state funding is Thursday, Jan. 25. The next regular County Board meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 30, would have been too late.
The Jan. 23 special board meeting was opened by County Board Chair Mark Anderson with a moment of silent prayer in remembrance of Supervisor Russ Bauer, who passed away on Monday, Jan. 15 after a brief illness.
"It's really imperative for this County Board to take a stance to improve broadband," County Administrator John LeFebvre declared at the start of the meeting. He said the deadline to submit funding requests for the first round of this year's grant program is Jan. 25 so County Board needed to act before then. However for about two weeks after the application deadline, the county and Packerland can continue gathering showings of support, which could be cash contributions, or simply letters from businesses and other governmental units and individuals explaining why broadband access is important to them.
LeFebvre then introduced Cory Heigl, Vice President and General Manager of Packerland Broadband, who works from its Iron Mountain, Mich. office.
If the project grant is approved, Packerland intends to engineer and build a fixed wireless system in Marinette County to offer broadband connections to rural underserved areas. It would involve radios on 10 towers and provide service to about 4,157 households and 50 businesses by connecting to to Packerland's existing core network for internet connectivity. Upload and download speeds will be up to the FCC definition of 25 x 3 Mbps, Heigl said.
Heigl began with a little history of Wisconsin's efforts to improve Internet service in the state. In 2014, Gov. Scott Walker and the legislature put together a plan for broadband expansion to under served areas and allocated half a million dollars for project grants.
Heigl was proud that Packerland, in partnership with Eau Claire County, had been one of the successful applicants for dollars from that comparatively small pot.
This year, however, the state has allocated a total of $15 million to be awarded in two $7.5 million grant cycles with application deadlines in January and July. He feels Marinette County has a good chance, "because there are a lot of folks out there who cannot get Internet."
To a question from the floor, Heigl explained, "Broadband is just a fancy word for internet....just a bit faster." He said the technology was invented back in 1994, so it is not brand new. However, it still is not available in many lightly populated areas, so they continue using the slower dial up connectivity. He said satellite wireless works only with line of sight, so it is often not effective in forested areas of Wisconsin.
Then, a few years ago, MicroSoft challenged the nation to look into improving Internet service by using radio frequencies, and this is what their new system will be doing. Their new technology, which uses unused TV wave space, is not hampered by trees, bushes, or even some buildings.
The information packet for the meeting said the project is intended to engineer and build a fixed wireless system in Marinette County to offer broadband connections to rural underserved areas. The project will put radio systems on 10 existing towers and provide connectivity to Packerland's core network for internet connectivity. He explained the radios will "plug in" to Packerland's existing fiber optic system and then connect to the lightly populated areas by radio waves. Current technology allows waves to travel as far as 14 miles if all conditions are right, but the average is four to six miles. they are trying to get the FCC to allow them to use stronger broadcasting power so they can extend that distance. He said agreements are already in place for the "vertical real estate" they will need, meaning spots on the towers.
Towers they plan to use are located in Silver Cliff, High Falls, and McAllister, plus along the Hwy. 141 corridor from north of Wausaukee to Coleman. By various technologies they will connect along Hwy. 8 from Hwy. 141 to Dunbar and Goodman, and from just north of Wausaukee to Coleman along the 141 corridor.
Heigl noted high speed service is already available in the immediate Hwy. 141 area, but does not extend far beyond the highway. Broadcast technologies will make it possible to bring high speed service into off-highway areas where it is not available now.
Total investment in the project, which covers only preparing the tower locations (described as macro sites), is projected to be $421,466,48. They are applying for a 50/50 grant, which would leave $210,733.24 to be provided by the Packerland/Marinette County partnership. Packerland is prepared for an initial investment of $110,733.24, which left $100,000 to come from other sources. Marinette County allocated $60,000 toward this total and a $40,000 grant from MicroSoft Corporation will provide the remainder of the needed funding. With 4,157 homes passed, cost is $101.39 per home. Of this, Marinette County would be investing $14.43 per address within the project footprint.
Grant award announcements are expected in March. If the grant is approved, engineering would start in the third quarter of 2018, and deployment of gear and testing would start in the fourth quarter. Service would be available to customers in the third and fourth quarters of 2019. Approximate retail price, depending on speed required, would range from $39.95 to $69.95 per month.
Heigl said Packerland will invest another $350 per subscriber to place the needed technology at the homes and businesses served, which will equate to another $436,000 investment if one third of the potential subscribers are served. The equipment includes antennas atop the home or business.
The project includes possibilities for future expansion, possibly even another grant application in the July funding round.
Heigl described the new technology as using "TV white space," which was freed up by the switch from analog to digital TV.
He explained briefly about their projects in Eau Claire County, where internet capability is even used to communicate with physicians from the backs of ambulances en route to hospitals.
Supervisor Gilbert Engel had some questions about service in the City of Niagara, which Heigl said is provided through Cellcom. he said they work well together.
Supervisor George Kloppenberg wondered if his Amberg area will be completely left out, and Heigl said their intent is to eventually extend service to all of Marinette County.
Kevin Solway, who serves as Information Technology Director for Marinette County and also heads the Town of Stephenson Broadband efforts as a town supervisor, said the town has decided not to submit an application for this round of grants, partly because they ran out of time. He said Packerland is talking about putting a radio on the tower at Stephenson Town hall, and there have been conversations with CenturyLink about serving the Newton Lake area.
All in all, he said Packerland had much of the engineering done in advance for the Marinette County project, and "for Marinette County, this is good timing!"
Supervisors Ginger Deschaine, Shirley Kaufman, Tom Mailand, Tom Mandli, Al Mans, Al Sauld, Clancy Whiting, and Cheryl Wruk were absent and excused. The remaining 21 of the County Board's current 29 supervisors all voted in favor of the two enabling resolutions pledging $60,000 in county funds if the grant is awarded.
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