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County begins partnership with WANRack

County begins partnership with WANRack County begins partnership with WANRack

20-year deal will push Taylor County to forefront on internet access

More than two years ago, supervisor Mike Bub called on the Taylor County board to address the lack of affordable high speed broadband internet in the county.

From that beginning, work began on developing a public/private partnership to create a 74-mile “middle mile” network through the county. The network will serve as the backbone connecting Taylor County and allowing for the expansion of services to homes and businesses throughout the county.

On Tuesday, dignitaries gathered at the Medford Area Middle School auditorium to formally announce Taylor County has selected WANRack, a nationwide provider of fiber-optic Wide-Area Networks (WANs), to build a county-wide fiber optic network that will connect 34 sites throughout the county. In addition, the network will enable new, affordable high-speed Internet connectivity options to residents throughout the rural area, where 30-35 percent of students across the county’s three school districts have no home access to the Internet.

At Tuesday’s ceremony, Bub explained how the project started and that throughout it, the goal was to expand broadband options for residents and increase affordability through having competitive options for consumers. He said they needed to balance making this affordable also for the county as the ef- fort would be initially funded through countyissued debt service.

With support of county residents, in October 2020 Taylor County board supervisors voted 17-0 to fund a broadband initiative with a $9.5 million bond and issued an RFP. The top objectives were to accelerate economic development and incent service providers to bridge the broadband gap, by enabling competition for affordable connectivity options to as many of the 21,000 county residents as possible. The county selected WANRack in December 2020.

“The WANRack proposal provided the best solution for Taylor County and won by unanimous vote,” said Michael Bub, Taylor County Board Supervisor for the 4th District and Broadband Committee Chair. “The 20 year fixed-rate pricing for unlimited bandwidth eliminates the risk of unanticipated maintenance or other costs, and the WANRack fiber-count – three times more than the other vendors’ – ensures that we cannot outgrow this network.”

This unique partnership is the culmination of a twoyear effort by a committee established by the county in 2018. The bond fully covers construction, maintenance and operating costs for this open, “middle-mile” network, and the county has a significant revenue share for projects added to the network. The network will be fully constructed, live, and providing a new source of county revenue before the end of 2021.

Bub said two key points were when broadband committee member Dennis Hinderlighter brought forward a contact with WANRack, a company he was familiar with due to working with the Medford Area Public School District and the federal e-Rate program. The second key point was when county board members voted 17-0 in favor of borrowing up to $9.5 million. Bub said this level of commitment opened doors to industry partners and sent a message that the county was behind the project. Under the agreement worked out with WANRack, the county will pay for the work and contract with WANRack to oversee it for the next 20 years. The county will receive 11.25% of gross revenue from the lease of fiber optic lines which will go toward paying off its $8 million upfront investment. According to Bub, the projection is for the revenues to pay off the loan in eight years after which point it will continue to produce revenue for the county.

According to Bub, when they started the project it was with the hope of having broadband in place by 2025. WANRack has committed to having the line up and running within 10 months of the date the contract was signed.

Mike Brigman, president of WANRack spoke at the ceremony and praised the collaboration between the county and his company and talked about the potential growth here. WANRack is currently active in 24 states and works with more than 200 K-12 school districts including many county-wide school districts. He said that for many people internet service has become an additional utility, as important as having electricity, water and sewer services.

WANRack representatives spoke of the line being “future-proof” with a larger fiber capacity to allow for the continued expansion of vendors and services for years to come.

Benefit to residents

Bub explained the goal of the project was to increase accessibility for affordable broadband internet. He said the need for this was hit home last spring when schools were forced to close due to COVID-19. He said that about 30% of students in the county have no access to internet at their home. “For these students learning stopped,” Bub said.

Beyond that, Bub noted that with the workforce changes and the explosion in remote working, people are able to move away from big cities and to where the quality of life is what they want for their families. Having broadband access in Taylor County will open the door for growth. He gave an example of getting a phone call from a individual in Madison who runs a business from his home and who had read about the project in The Star News and was interested in learning more so that they could relocate to the county.

“It will help everyone,” said county board chairman Jim Metz, noting it will help students, businesses and help the county grow. Metz went on to praise the county board members for agreeing to and backing the project and praised the behind the scenes work done by the county’s finance director Larry Brandl in getting fi nancing for it and county clerk Andria Farrand for her efforts. Congressman Tom Tiffany also spoke and expressed admiration for the county coming together for a project like this, noting that getting a unanimous vote in the county board is not easy and that perhaps they should come to Washington, D.C. and show the people there how cooperation works.

“The Taylor County broadband project is one of the most innovative public-private partnerships we have seen in northcentral Wisconsin. This build out is critically important for economic development, access to educational opportunities and, overall to improve residents’ way of life. I commend the members of the Taylor County Broadband Committee for their forward thinking and coming together to find solutions; their proposal should be a model for other counties and regions throughout the state,” said Sen. Jerry Petrowski in a statement about the project.

He was echoed by Rep. James Edming. “Throughout my time serving the people of the 87th District in the state Assembly, one of the most common concerns that I hear about from constituents is the need for improved high-speed internet access. The lack of reliable highspeed internet access hurts economic growth, limits educational opportunities, and diminishes the quality of life. A few years ago, I was at the county board meeting when this idea was first discussed and I am pleased to see it moving forward to the point of actually putting fiber in the ground. I would like to commend the members of the Taylor County broadband committee for their outstanding work on this project. I feel that this effort in Taylor County could be a model for other rural counties in our state for improving broadband access in their area and am proud to represent a county that is leading the way in improving rural broadband,” Edming said.

Project details

The WANRack network will span the county’s 984 square miles to connect sites – such as courthouses, town and city halls, the public works and sheriff’s departments – with high-speed broadband service. In addition, Internet and wireless service providers will be able to affordably lease any portion of the new fiber in order to provide new high-speed consumer service options to residents.

“Taylor County leadership has been extremely savvy in pursuing this county-wide broadband initiative, and we are seeing great interest from Internet and wireless carriers to leverage the county’s investment,” said Rob Oyler, WANRack Founder and CEO. “This critical infrastructure project will ensure unlimited bandwidth for county needs, while enabling carriers to offer new services to satisfy consumer demand. It’s a win-win that every county should explore.” WANRack is currently operating in 24 states. The company’s robust fiber-optic networks traverse the nation, from Florida to Washington state, and Arizona to Connecticut. The WANRack executive management team has constructed and delivered more than 200 fiber-optic WANs since 2005.

According to Sean Brown, vice president of operation and construction for WANRack, the installation of the buried fiber optic cable will involve multiple crews working at the same time around the county in order to achieve the aggressive timeline. One of the factors that WANRack representatives say will help “future proof” the project is that they will be installing cable with 432 fibers, three times as many fibers as other vendors offered. In addition, the company plans to install a large number of handhole points which will allow for future build out. These will be done every 750 feet in rural areas and every 500 feet in urban areas. This is especially useful for servicing cellphone towers to build out 5G networks. A side benefit would be the improvement of cellphone services in rural portions of the county as more towers are built.

Total construction costs are estimated to be $8,092,286 which includes the fiber optic cables and electronics to connect the network.

The contract with WANRack is fixed for maintenance cost at $149,976 per year for the 74.6 miles of line. The maintenance contract is renewable every five years with the ability of it to go down as other parties are added to the network and generate additional revenues. Under the agreement WANRack is responsible for all breaks and issues involving relocation of the fiber.

WANRack will connect businesses interested in being on the network that are within 500 feet of the network for free if they connect at the time of construction.

In addition to this project, the county is also looking to add 23.78 additional miles of fiber to connect additional towers in the county. Bub said the county has applied for $580,000 to fund the additional fiber for those towers and was optimistic about the county’s chances.

WANRack will also be contacting residents and businesses during the construction phase about bundled services and fiber to the home. Brigman said the capacity of the cable will also open the door to other vendors to provide localized services bringing additional competition for prices and services to the region. Bub noted competition will be good for the consumers.

Rep. Tom Tiffany

Mike Bub

Mike Brigman

Jim Metz

Members of the county broadband committee along with area dignitaries gathered with representatives from WANRack to mark the announcement of a partnership to install an $8 million, 74-mile fiber optic middle mile network in Taylor County.BRIAN WILSON/THE STAR NEWS

Sheldon Johnson