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Clark County Board supports Astrea broadband initiative

In its ongoing quest to bring high-speed internet to more of Clark County, the county board approved a resolution signaling its support of Astrea Connect in “exploring, analyzing and assessing potential broadband expansion projects in Clark County.”

The resolution, which passed unanimously January 19, does not involve a financial commitment on the county’s part but simply indicates the county’s interest in potentially working with Astrea, an internet service provider headquartered in Iron Mountain, Mich. Astrea provides service to about 14,500 customers in 65 rural/small communities in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula.

The company is no stranger to Clark County, with it already providing service to about 500 addresses in the city of Greenwood. Also, in fall 2021, Astrea received a grant from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) to bring service to 144 customers in the Rock Dam Lake area. That service is expected to be active by May.

That project cost $298,000. The PSC awarded $179,000 in grant funding for the project, Astrea paid $116,000 and the town of Foster contributed $2,500.

Astrea also worked with the University of Wisconsin in the early 2010s to build a fiber line from Eau Claire to Marshfield, with that line traveling across Clark County.

Astrea’s newest proposed project for the county would cover 480 addresses between Rock Dam and Greenwood. It would involve constructing 45 linear miles of fiber, connected at various points to the transmission line already running through the area. The density is 10.91 addresses per linear mile. Customers would be able to choose between three options for internet speed, but the minimum upload and download speed would be 100 megabits per second. The estimated project cost is $2 million.

The project would be eligible for a PSC Broadband Expansion Grant, as “the PSC classifies all of this area as unserved or underserved,” explained Cory Heigl, Astrea vice president and general manager, in a presentation to the county board.

Although the county is not required to contribute any money to the project, a local contribution could improve the chances of the county being awarded the grant.

“We are willing to invest $600,000 of our own money,” said Heigl. “If we have partner funding, it would reduce the amount we needed to ask for from the state. By having a funding match (from the county), it does lower the percentage of grant funding required and the PSC looks on it more favorably.”

Heigl presented three possible funding scenarios to the board. In the first scenario, Astrea would pay $600,000; the county would pay $200,000 and the grant would cover $1,180,000, or 60 percent of the total project cost. In the second scenario, Astrea would pay $600,000; the county would pay $50,000 and the grant would cover $1,330,000, or 67 percent of the total project cost.

“There is no requirement for public funding,” Heigl reiterated. “However, any promise of a match gives us more points on the grant application. If you have no partner funding, it doesn’t help you… You score higher when the request from the state is a lower percentage of the overall project cost.”

“So the county should give some money to get this to go through?” asked county board member Jerome Krempasky.

“Every little bit will help,” replied Heigl. “For example, the town of Foster threw in $2,500. It seemed insignificant on a $300,000 project, but it may have helped score us slightly higher.”

County board member Ken Gerhardt asked if anyone was currently offering high-speed internet in that area. County IT director Mitch Weber said no one was.

The Broadband Expansion Grant application is due February 22. If awarded a grant, the county would expect to find out in late May or early June. Wisconsin’s funding for the Broadband Expansion Grant program is being provided by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

The board did not give any indication of promising county money for the project. However, the board will meet again before the application is due. The next county board meeting will be February 16 at 7 p.m. in the county board room in the courthouse, 517 Court St., Neillsville.