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Broadband quality is inconsistent across the St. Croix County. Access generally declines the more rural the address. The more urban the address, the better the service opportunities. Stock photo

The St. Croix County Board of Supervisors heard that the county has a ways to go before most residents have sufficient broadband access.

Design Nine representative Jack Maytum walked supervisors through an extensive summary of the Broadband Study initially commissioned by the county in March of this year. 

The goal of the study was to evaluate the accessibility and quality of broadband services as they currently exist countywide and recommend “strategies to make fast, reliable Internet access available to as many households, businesses and institutions across the County as possible.”

The lengthy study was delivered in 3 parts: Broadband Report, Broadband Survey Results and Service Provider Report. 

Design Nine conducted meetings and interviews beginning in May with a wide range of stakeholders including businesses and county staff. A 25-question survey was mailed to residents and a separate business survey to businesses throughout the county. Residents and business owners could access the survey online. 

There were 5,465 responses to the residential survey and 144 responses to the business survey. More than 100 pages of comments from the surveys are included in the Broadband Survey Results document. 

In July, the results were tabulated and reviewed by Design Nine and county staff. An initial draft of the study was presented to county staff in early fall, revised in November and presented at the Dec. 6 meeting to the full Board of Supervisors.

The federal government has been handing out money to internet service providers and wireless internet service providers, primarily telecommunications companies, for a number of years now. The funds have been distributed in a variety of ways contingent on proposals from those companies designating where and how they would spend those funds to provide broadband services to specific locations.

In exchange for those funds, the companies agreed to document progress on their plans twice a year by filing the information beginning in 2014. That data has been integrated with information from the 2020 census to illustrate, in a number of different ways (maps, graphs and reports), access to broadband and the quality of that broadband down to a county level. 

By incorporating the census data, access includes not just physical access to the technology but economic access as well – who can afford to pay what and for what level of service.

The study tells two different stories.   

The Federal Communications Commission data established the following transmission speeds as the standard for service.

  • Unserved – less than 10 Megabits downloads / 1 Megabit uploads.

  • Underserved - at least 10 megabits downloads / 1 Megabit uploads and less than 25 Megabits downloads / 3 Megabits uploads

  • Served - Equal to or better than 25 Megabits downloads / 3 Megabits uploads 

The report noted that how the FCC arrived at “fully served” is misleading.

  • The data is self-reported by the providers, who typically report their most optimistic internet speeds. In practice, customers may not always get the reported speeds. 

  • A single customer receiving service in a census block means that the provider can indicate that the entire census block is counted. So if one household receives 25/3 service, all households in that census block are counted as receiving that level of service. 

Using the FCC standard, St. Croix County is considered “fully served” meaning every census block meets the 25/3Mbps standard for service.

The 130 pages of comments directly from residents refutes that finding.

Reality 

The reality is, broadband quality is inconsistent across the county. Access generally declines the more rural the address. The more urban the address, the better the service opportunities. 

According to the report, “St. Croix County has many areas hampered by low-end broadband in the form of DSL, very limited wireless, expensive satellite internet, and very limited cable modem service. They also have a very limited high-end broadband in the form of fiber to a few businesses and institutions.”

The study confirms that adequate broadband access is now considered a prerequisite for residents when they are considering where to purchase a home or establish a business.. 

Broadband is now considered as essential as any other utility by the public. The study points out that the recent pandemic only sped up the movement to work from home, a movement that has proven to be more cost effective for both employers (office rent) and employees (transportation).

The study recognizes that good quality broadband significantly impacts education and home health care.

The pandemic forced schools to employ remote learning at a new scale. It forced students to learn from home. It forced parents to stay at home as well not only because their businesses were also requiring a work-from-home solution but to be with their children. 

Learning from home and working from home both require quality broadband. Although the pandemic has not yet reached an endemic stage, the changes mandated by COVID-19 appear to be here to stay reinforcing the need for quality broadband everywhere. 

In order for those kinds of activities to take place at home or remotely from a place of business, upload speed is the critical number. The service standard must be considerably faster than the FCC “served” standard.

It needs to be at least 10 Mbps downloads and 10 Mbps uploads as a starting point and more like 25 Mbps downloads and 10 Mbps uploads realistically. Corporate network services often require 10-50 Megabit symmetric connections. 

Gov. Tony Ever’s Task Force on Broadband Access has set aggressive goals for the state:

  • By 2025, all homes and businesses should have access to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

  • By 2028, all homes and businesses should have access to 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload speeds.

  • By 2031, all homes and businesses in the state should have access to 100 Mbps download and 50 Mbps upload.

The study proposed a two-part strategy to achieve long-term quality broadband service. Invest initially to strengthen the existing fixed point wireless network (wireless towers) in the short-term while strategizing how to fund and build a fiber network in the long term. 

The study suggests that actual quality broadband with enough speed to manage email, send and receive volumes of text, photos and video, reliable cell phone service, reliable internet television access, all at the same time and while neighbors are doing the same, in the long-term, means access to an optical fiber cable network. 

The county currently has at least 5 long-haul fiber networks running through it from east to west and one more running north to south. Long-haul networks generally run from point to point connecting larger population centers and do not provide local access along the line.

The study suggests construction of a middle mile fiber network as a way to provide that connectivity for local residents and businesses.

The study provides an estimate to build a primary middle mile fiber network 109 miles in length that could provide access to more than 270) homes at a cost of nearly $12 million. It also recommends building a fiber connecting route 24 miles long serving an additional 240 homes at an additional cost of $2.5 million. 

According to Consumer Reports in 2019, the national average price for a standard triple play of services (television, internet, telephone) including government fees was $217.43 per account. 

According to the study, the cost in St. Croix County for a triple play of services that meet the 25/3 standard ranged from $153.95 to $201.68 per account.

Next steps 

The study suggests public-private partnerships have proved to be successful models for other communities helping them to build fiber networks and strengthen existing fixed point wireless networks while minimizing the burden on taxpayers.  

The study recommends against the county becoming a provider. Different strategies that would allow the county maintain skin in the game without becoming a provider include constructing the middle mile fiber network and leasing access to ISPs and WISPS who would solicit, install and maintain access to individual households and businesses from the middle mile network.

There are a number of different providers presently providing service in the county. Access to a comprehensive fiber network is likely to attract and promote competitive pricing. 

The study suggests the time to begin planning for a fiber network is now.

“There is a tsunami of funding that’s currently in progress based on the CARES, ARPA and also the infrastructure plan which passed in November which is going to be available sometime in the later part of 2022,” said Maytum.

The study documents a wide variety of potential funding resources and strategies including the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, the federal infrastructure plan, funding through the Wisconsin Broadband Office, HUD Community Development Block Grants, USDA Reconnect Program, and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). 

“If St. Croix can use ARPA funds, other grant opportunities and some local funds to make carefully targeted passive infrastructure investments and to develop constructive public/private partnerships, most homes and businesses in St. Croix County could have gigabit fiber service within the next four to six years.”

The Administrative Committee plans to review the study at its Dec. 21 meeting and make strategy recommendations to the Board of Supervisors at its Jan. 4 meeting.

Tom Lindfors is a western Wisconsin freelance journalist and former Star-Observer reporter. Contact him at tom@lindforsphoto.com

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