Posted on

Task force eyes north county pilot

The Marathon County Broadband Task Force on Monday expressed interest in pilot projects across the county’s northern tier to improve internet service if the county is able to obtain state and federal grants and local internet companies are willing to participate in such projects.

The task force, which includes both county supervisors and citizen members, seemed to agree a $30 million fiber loop around the county was beyond its grasp but that smaller projects could be financed if outside funds become available.

The panel agreed that the Wausau metro area and rural local villages have reasonable internet service, but different rural areas don’t. A corridor between Little Chicago and Athens is notoriously bad, task force members agreed.

County board chairman Kurt Gibbs said it was possible to get towns and other municipalities to share their unspent federal Route to Recovery funds with the county for broadband projects, but that the county is waiting on the state Department of Administration to rule whether that would be a legal use of the CARES Act funds.

County administrator Lance Leonhard underscored that the county would have to spend the money on projects before Nov. 6 or the money would return to the state.

Task force members did not officially set baseline broadband speed goals, but, in discussion, members said speeds of 25 megabits per second download and three megabits upload were a good minimum to shoot for. Task force vice-chair Sara Guild, Weston, said anything less than that would be “ridiculous.”

City-County IT director Gerry Klein said he questioned whether the area’s internet service providers would actually upgrade service to rural residents even if the county were to obtain broadband funding.

He said that the providers at a recent meeting gave a “very cool reception” to the idea of working with the county to enhance internet services using money obtained through state and federal grants.

The director said the internet providers did not see problems with currently available internet service and that they felt service would improve “when it made sense to” from a business point of view.

Task force citizen member Eric Budleski said he’s heard the same excuse for poor rural service from internet providers for the past decade. “This is a topic that really fires me up,” he stated.

Guild said she was struck when internet providers at the same meeting referenced by Klein disagreed with the need for a major fiber loop in the county, saying installation of a few towers was all that was needed.

Citizen task force member Emmet McBride said he took these comments with a grain of salt. “My suspicion is that they are giving us information that fits their own needs,” he said.