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County beginning to see business customers on broadband network

Next phases will see expanding to residential; construction of tower network beginning in spring

Taylor County’s investment in broadband is beginning to pay off.

The county had started the broadband project in 2018 forming a committee to look at options to bring affordable broadband internet access to all of the county.

The project moved forward with the county board in May 2020 approving borrowing $9.5 million to pay for the construction of a middle-mile network that would run through the county. At the time it was proposed the plan was for the county network to connect county facilities, schools and municipal buildings with fiber optic service but would also serve as a backbone for internet service providers to connect to businesses and eventually to residences throughout the county. Since then the county contracted with WANRack to install the fiber network in the more densely populated portion and then with Bug Tussel, allowing that company to utilize the county’s borrowing capacity in order to construct an additional fiber optic loop through the northern portion of the county while also committing to building 17 towers which will provide affordable broadband wireless connectively to homes in more rural areas.

According to county broadband committee chairman Mike Bub, the dream of having broadband access through the county by 2025 is swiftly becoming reality with the real prospect that by the end of 2023 services could be up and running throughout much of the county.

On Tuesday Bub announced the county’s broadband system is live with a number of business customers having signed up for the service. He said WANRack is working to bring more business customers on the network.

“They now have connected businesses who are using the network,” he said noting the customers include industrial employers as well as rural taverns. “Every week we are adding more and more customers,” he said, This is good news for Taylor County taxpayers since under the contracts with WANRack, the county gets 11% of any of the revenue generated from user fees on the line. Over time this will go toward paying off the debt with the hope of generating future revenue to go into county coffers.

In addition, Bub said within the next few weeks all county buildings will be live and running on the county network. This will have a direct savings to taxpayers of $3,000 per month, which comes out to $36,000 per year, in savings over paying an outside provider for the service.

Beyond this, municipal buildings such as city hall and the town halls that are connected to the county network will also receive internet access at no charge to those communities. Bub said the connections to the town halls will include access to the network for town business, but will also include connectivity for the public to use at those buildings.

“Things are moving in the right direction,” Bub said. One of the hurdles for having these connection points running is the delay on routers and equipment. He said they ordered the routers for the town halls in December 2021 and have yet to receive them.

He also reported that this Friday he will be meeting with Hartland Computers and members of the fair board to pick the location of WiFi repeaters at the Fairgrounds to have internet access for those using the fairgrounds. In addition, the Fair office has a free connection to the county system which will save the fair board money going forward from having to bring in hotspots to connect.

Bub estimated that the cost of the project so far is about $8.2 million. He said in speaking with WANRack, the company is bidding out for similar projects in other areas in excess of $15 million.

With the explosion in federal funds available for broadband projects, Bub said the companies that do this work are getting overbooked which is driving up cost and causing delays for those projects. “Either we were the smartest or the luckiest,” Bub said, noting that by getting in before the rush, they were able to install a network at less cost and in better time.

As the county’s fiber optic network is underway, Bug Tussel is working through regulatory approval from the FCC and PSC to put up 17 communication towers as well as installing their own fiber network connection to those towers to serve the northwest, central and far eastern areas of the county. Bug Tussel is also working with Marathon County and will have towers in nearby areas such as in Milan.

Bub said the tower construction is expected to begin in spring as soon as the company can start moving materials. Each tower will be able to provide a signal out to points within 12 miles. In more densely populated areas there will also be fiber to the home options. Fiber to the home is simply not practical from a cost standpoint for the more rural areas given the cost of installation.

Beyond broadband internet access, Bub notes that each of Bug Tussels’ towers is rated to hold up to three cellular service providers with AT& T committed to put equipment on seven of them as part of a federal emergency connectivity project. This promises to greatly improve cellular phone service in the impacted regions of the county.