Sauk County considers partnership with utility for broadband expansion

November 29, 2017 GMT

Sauk County officials hope a survey of Spring Green residents and businesses will bolster a public utility’s request for grant money to extend high-speed internet service to that area.

Jenny Erickson, who heads the county’s University of Wisconsin-Extension office, said the survey should arrive in mailboxes soon, if it hasn’t already.

She briefed the Sauk County Board’s Economic Development Committee on Monday about the county’s plan to assist the Reedsburg Utility Commission in its effort to offer broadband internet to the village and town of Spring Green.

Last year, the Reedsburg utility applied for — but was denied — a broadband expansion grant from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin to extend coverage to Spring Green. However, the denial was in part based on maps that some say are not an accurate reflection of internet access in that area.

The survey — which must be returned by Dec. 15 — asks residents about the speed of services offered to their homes and businesses, and whether they desire a faster connection. It also asks respondents for permission to use their addresses to develop a more complete coverage map.

Erickson said if the survey shows rural Spring Green truly is underserved, that should help the Reedsburg utility’s bid for grant funding. A new round of grants will be distributed next year, and applications are due Jan. 25.

“We’re going to be able to say, yeah, there’s a real need here,” Erickson said.

Erickson said the plan is for Sauk County — along with other public and private agencies — to partner with the Reedsburg utility in its grant application with the PSC. However, she said she was not sure about other entities that might be involved.

Reedsburg Utility Commission General Manager Brett Schuppner could not be reached for comment.

Board Chair Marty Krueger of Reedsburg, who chairs the Economic Development Committee, said the cost to the county of participating in the joint effort has not yet been determined.

The county may assist by allowing the utility to access the internet through its fiber-optic network of communication towers. The grant also would allow the county to bring its highway shop in that area onto the fiber-optic loop.

Supervisor Dennis Polivka of Spring Green said he was concerned that the main coverage area proposed for the expansion already has plenty of service options available. He said it does not focus on truly rural areas that have limited access.

“Why would I go for this when it’s just going to be for a small area that already has access to the internet?” he said.

Polivka — who lives in the town of Spring Green — said his home is served by Bug Tussel Wireless, and gets service fast enough to stream online movies while several computers surf the web.

The grant would allow for wired service to the area, whereas the company that serves Polivka uses towers that are hooked into the county’s fiber-optic network to provide wireless access.

The Survey Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls is implementing the survey on behalf of the county.

The Reedsburg Utility Commission is a former recipient of a broadband access grant. It requested $110,000 from the PSC to extend fiber-optic cable to homes at Buckhorn Lake in 2016.

The PSC awarded $69,300 for that project, and the Reedsburg utility anticipated it would recoup the additional $40,000 that it spent out-of-pocket within the first year.

Also during Monday’s meeting, the committee discussed the potential to coordinate with other entities to expand rural broadband throughout the county.

“I feel like we’re maybe missing a comprehensive, overarching plan for how Sauk County wants to address lack of broadband access in rural areas,” Erickson said.