Posted on

Future uncertain

Future uncertain Future uncertain

County broadband plan faces challenges as member walks out of committee meeting

The Taylor County Broadband Committee delayed taking action at its meeting on Tuesday on a resolution asking the county board to proceed with implementing the broadband project for the county.

Committee chairman Mike Bub told members attending the meeting in person and via video conference the resolution calls for the Taylor County Board of Supervisors to approve proceedings with the implementation of the Taylor County broadband project and to borrow up to $9.5 million for the project. He said the project would include creating a third-party corporation under the supervision of the county board to be the controlling board for the network, work with Taylor Electric Cooperative and Dairyland Power Cooperative to use their existing poles and right-ofways for the fiber optic cables, hire people to engineer, construct and manage the project, hire people to sell leases to use the network and to collect revenues from those leases and customer hookups, and people to maintain and support the network. Bub said while Taylor Electric and Dairyland Power were willing to let the county use their poles and rightof- ways, both companies had decided not to become a partners or invest any money in the project. Committee members Gene Knoll and James Stokes both said they were under the impression Taylor Electric would be investing money in the project. Taylor Electric CEO Ken Ceaglske said via video-conference there had been some discussion about connecting the four substations in the county with fiber optics because of reliability concerns over the current wireless system, but now that the wireless system is working better, he said the cooperative didn’t see the need to spend several million dollars on a fiber optic connection.

Stokes said if Taylor Electric had made that decision nine months ago, the project would be “so much further down the road.” He said not having a decision of whether or not Taylor Electric would invest in the project was a roadblock to moving forward. “No, you never made a formal decision, but all along we were under the determination that you were going to move forward in some capacity financially and that was part of the equation we couldn’t figure out because of the indecisiveness of your organization.”

Bub said this is the risk with a private and government partnership. He said the county was looking at it as an intrastructure project that helps the residents of Taylor County while a business looks at it as what is best for the business. Bub said if those two met and both the county and private company can work together, it was great. He said Stokes needs to understand that if Taylor Electric was still willing to let the county use their poles and right-of-way, it will significantly reduce the cost of the project. Bub said while it was disappointing the boards of Taylor Electric and Dairyland Power have decided not to put money into the project, he didn’t think the committee should place a lot of blame on them for doing what they think is right for their businesses.

Stokes agreed, but wanted to know when they decided they weren’t going to financially move forward with the project. Bub said he was notified of their decision after the committee’s April 1 meeting.

Knoll asked what had changed with the wireless connection to the substations. Bub said when Country Wireless attended a broadband committee several months ago and talked about how far the new transmitters coming out can broadcast, it gave Taylor Electric other options to consider. He said the new transmitters are still being tested and that Country Wireless hasn’t installed any yet. Bub said that’s the challenge. He said everyone is waiting to see what new technology is just over the horizon. “Do we move forward or do we stop and wait for it?” Bub asked.

Knoll said that was one of his concerns. He said the other was the fiscal nature the county is in today versus what it was six months, eight months or even a year ago. He said according to the national counties newspaper that just came out, county budgets nationwide could see a $144 billion drop in revenue. Knoll said with all the extra expenses and drop in sales tax revenue, is it fiscally responsible to spend $9.5 million for high-speed broadband? He agreed the county needed it, but was worried the county couldn’t afford it at this time.

Bub said he asked county finance director Larry Brandl the same question and was told interest rates were good right now. He said the county didn’t have to borrow all the money at this time. Bub said the county board was not going to approve the motion and then go right out and borrow $9 million. He said it was going to be done in stages. Bub said if the county doesn’t get started so the internet providers know that the county was going to build the broadband network, they can’t bid for the money in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund in the fall. “It’s like dominoes. At some point we have to decide to knock down the first domino so the others follow.” Bub added that Taylor County has not been hit as hard by the COVID-19 pandemic as other counties in the state and that, in fact, most of the employees in Taylor County are still working.

Brandl said the county could move forward with the financing of the project in segments over the next two or three years. He said at least the money would be available as needed and would allow the county to pursue grants or other funding should they become available in the future. Brandl said he spoke with the county’s financial adviser who said the county could borrow the money at a rate of less than 2 percent, which Brandl said for municipal borrowing was very good. Brandl said he didn’t know how that would affect the tax rate, but could bring that information to the county board meeting. He added in 2022 the county would be totally debt-free. Brandl said he was also worried about the financial future, but agreed with Bub that the county needs to make a decision on whether or not to move forward.

Following further discussion about the need for highspeed broadband internet access in the county, the issue came back to Taylor Electric. Stokes asked why the county would have to update the rural network map. Bub said it was because the four substations were no longer part of the network due to Taylor Electric’s decision not to financially contribute to the project. Stokes asked it the county could then send the bill to Taylor Electric. Bub asked what for.

“For the fact we have to update the rural network map because of their reneging on their thing,” Stokes replied.

“They didn’t renege on anything,” Bub said. “They never formally agreed.”

“The fact that they had been implying — I realize there has been a transition and all this stuff — is why it has taken us so long to get to this point,” Stokes continued. “It has taken us this long to get here because they were saying they wanted to be involved. If they never wanted to be involved, we would be so much further ahead by now. The fact that we have to update this map because of that doesn’t make me happy as a taxpayer. I’m not happy.”

Bub said he understood Stokes was unhappy, but didn’t know if he agreed. Bub said he didn’t know if some of the information they received because of Taylor Electric’s research or some of the sites they visited, that Taylor County wouldn’t have gotten that information.

“That’s negligence on their part, not ours,” Stokes replied. “We were relying on information they were disclosing to us. Don’t any of you involved feel the same? If it were any other entity, we would be disgruntled. If it were Vantage Point [company that did the broadband survey for the county], we would be very disappointed. Would we not be disappointed if we mislead for a year of our lives? I’ve written pages Mike [Schaefer] has read and Ken [Ceaglske] has reviewed. I’ve spent a year of my life on this project and a lot of that work should be an expense to them. Why should the county continue to pay for things that other entities are causing problems.”

Stokes went on to say he was not interested in using Taylor Electric or Dairyland Power’s poles if the county didn’t have to. Bub said it would double the cost of the project. Stokes replied the county should reduce the cost of the project by reducing the side of the footprint for the Middle Mile Network.

Stokes said he agreed the county needed to update the Middle Mile Network map. “How much money have we spent on that map? How much money have we spent on mapping that included Taylor Electric substations? Thousands of dollars.”

Bub said it shouldn’t take much to eliminate the substations from the map.

“Then that’s a small invoice we can send to Taylor Electric,” Stokes said.

Knoll told Bub there was more to it than that. He said if the substations are taken out, the county might want to redesign the network and change some of the routes. Stokes agreed.

“We also spent $12,000 — I don’t know how many thousands — on a feasibility study that included that in its entirety. Thousands of dollars. Thousands,” Stokes said. “I just want to be firm that what I am saying is accurate. Then my frustration can go away and we can report. But they are absolutely negligent in what has happened up to this point.”

“I don’t agree . . .,” began Knoll.

“You don’t agree, that’s fine,” Stokes said as he stood up, gathered his belongings and left the meeting, telling the committee members they need to stop denying reality.

After Stokes had left, Knoll and Bub agreed some minor adjustments may have to be made to a few routes, but the county wouldn’t have to make major changes to the routes just because the eletric substations were no longer part of the plan.

Knoll brought the discussion back to financing the project. He suggested the committee take a time out for a few months to see how the COVID-19 pandemic plays out before making a decision, saying he was not comfortable asking the board of supervisors to spend $9.5 or $10 million right now.

Bub said they were at the point where a decision has to be made and to delay would deny high-speed internet service to the residents of the county and increase the cost. Knoll said at some point the federal or state government will have a reality check and decide in order for the country to “really hum,“ they are going to have to tie it together with a high-speed internet network. Bub didn’t think it would happen any time soon. Knoll disagreed.

“I have no evidence of that occurring,” Bub said. “I don’t believe they understand the difficulty of creating a network that has more than five miles of cable per customer. When someone tells me that the city of Stevens Point is rural, that causes me to scratch my head. I don’t think anyone is coming over the hill to fix this. In the future, I think you’re right. In the meantime, Taylor County will continue to suffer economically.”

Since Stokes had left the meeting, there were not enough voting members for the committee to take action. Bub said he would try to arrange for committee members to meet in person or by teleconference to vote on the resolution before the next county board meeting.