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Don’t derail county broadband plan

If broadband is a superhighway of information, Taylor County is stuck at a Kwik Trip by the frontage road on-ramp waiting for a fuel pump to open up.

Last week, after more than a year of planning, the county appeared ready to hit the accelerator. The committee stalled on reaching a final recommendation to ask the county board to commit $9.5 million to invest in installing a local fiber-optic backbone.

With the issue set for a vote at next week’s county board session, the committee needs to jump start the process and do what is best for the longterm interests of Taylor County.

The county is woefully under served by internet service options. Our rural residents pay a premium for access that is far less than what is available elsewhere in the state. Much like electric service in the last century, internet expansion has been driven by markets and profitability. More population means more potential customers and a faster return on investment. It makes sense from a business standpoint that service providers focus almost exclusively on more urban areas leaving rural America largely unserved.

The federal government has pumped millions into rural broadband projects. Unfortunately what people in Washington, D.C. consider rural is roughly the same as the state categorizing small businesses as those with under 500 employees.

Broadband internet has long been seen as a luxury. However, as the recent experience with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shows, for many, internet access is a lifeline connecting students to eduction and allowing people to work from home. Businesses of all sizes also require reliable, affordable high speed internet in order to function and grow.

It is time to consider internet access the same as any other utility infrastructure and make the same sort of public investment for the greater public good. The county’s plan calls for the creation of a publicly owned business which would oversee the installation of a backbone of fiber network. The county would lease access to this network to individual service providers, much like the county leases space on its communications tower to cellphone service providers. Ideally, revenue generated from these leases would be used to pay off the installation expenses.

The main hang-up at this point is the role private business partners Taylor Electric Cooperative and Dairyland Power Cooperative will play in the process. Initially, planners had hoped for a monetary investment as the cooperatives sought to connect their substations. However, a change in leadership and new options for the companies have taken that off the table for now. What they bring to the table is access to the cooperatives’ poles and right of way, which has a significant economic value for the county.

The broadband committee has been working tirelessly to explore cost-effective options that will open the door to future economic growth in Taylor County. This work must continue. County board members must look to the county’s future and vote yes for the broadband plan.