County board didn’t look into other broadband options

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By Charley Preusser

 

It seems the Crawford County Board may have overlooked quite a few broadband internet options when it appeared to rush to approve a proposal for wireless (cellphone tower) internet from Bug Tussel.

The company, headquartered in Green Bay, proposed to build 16 cellphone towers in the county and provide  broadband internet to residents currently unserved or underserved with internet. 

A flyer given to some  of the county board members outlines the Bug Tussel Wireless Distance Learning Program. 

“Bug Tussel Wireless is a wireless broadband internet provider focused on underserved areas,” the company’s flyer states. “To help with challenges facing school systems, we are offering a special 30 percent discount for the 2020-21 school year.”

The company then lists four options: 

•4.8 megabytes per second (mbps) discounted by 30 percent to $31.99 from the original price of $45.71. With the $10 monthly equipment rental needed, it becomes $41.99 at the discounted price or $55.71 at the standard price.

•9.6 mbps for $47.99 monthly discounted with an $8 equipment rental making it $55.99 at the discounted price or a standard price of $76.99 per month with the $8 equipment rental included.

•14.4 mbps for $55.99 monthly with an $8 equipment rental making the discounted price $63.99 or a standard price of $88 per month with the $8 equipment rental included.

•25 mbps for $71.99 monthly discounted with an $8 equipment rental making it $79.99 at the discounted price or a standard price of $110.86 per month with the $8 equipment rental included.

The prices look high and the speeds look quite low compared to a variety of competitors. However, Crawford County Board Chairperson Tom Cornford confirmed last week that there was no attempt to get prices from other providers.

That’s a fact confirmed by Tom Martin, the Wauzeka-Steuben School Board member who arranged to have Bug Tussel CEO  Steve Schneider appear before the Crawford County Board Finance Committee. Martin is concerned about the lack of broadband internet availability in the Wauzeka area impacting virtual learning possibilities, as well as other concerns. He was steered toward Bug Tussel by colleagues he spoke with at work.

Martin was unable to reach anyone at Century Link, a phone company provider of cable supplied internet in Wauzeka and other underserved areas of the county. Martin also did not contact Mediacom, a cable TV company located in Prairie du Chien which operates in the area and also provides broadband internet.

Also not contacted was the Richland Grant Telephone Co-operative, which provides fiber optic cable to residents and businesses in the northern portion of the county.

At the county finance committee meeting, Schneider made the proposal for Bug Tussel. He would provide internet through the prices quoted at the speeds promised by constructing 16 cellphone towers in the area. Schneider allowed that if there were existing towers that could be used and met the standards for the network, Bug Tussel would consider using them.

Schneider insisted at the meeting he wanted to appear before the county board and make his proposal. He told the finance committee if he did not get unanimous support from the board, he would not undertake the project. 

At the Aug. 16 meeting of the Crawford County Board, it was recorded that the Bug Tussel proposal to provide wireless internet in Crawford County through the use of cellphone towers received a unanimous voice vote of the board. 

However, the matter was listed as an agenda item under appearances and recognitions, not an action item. The Independent-Scout obtained two independent legal opinions that the agenda item was not properly noticed for public participation.

There are 35 towers in the county and all but a few are used for cellphone communication as well as other things.

So, what are other providers and would-be providers offering in Crawford County that was not considered by the finance committee or the county board.

Century Link has lots of offers on their website, including offering fiber optic cable gigabyte broadband. However, there are lots of disclaimers about having things only where they’re available. 

At two addresses in the Wauzeka area, there were two different offers. At a Main Street address in the village, Century Link offered 40 mbps download and a much smaller upload. At a rural Wauzeka address, the offer was for a 10 mbps download and a very small upload. Both offers were $49, but included fees for modems and installation in some cases.

Mediacom, which is available in parts of Crawford County, offered higher speeds on some low introductory rates that escalated each year. Mediacom offered 60 mbps download and 5 mbps upload for $39.99 per month for one year which would increase to $69.99 per month in the following years.

There is also a monthly usage allowed of 400 gigabytes. Mediacom charges $10 for every gigabyte or part of a gigabyte over the allowed usage. 

Mediacom also offers a one gigabyte service, where available, with a 6,000 gigabyte allowable usage. While the service is a one gigabyte download, it only is 50 megabyte upload. The first year is $79.99 per month. The second year is $109.99 per month and the third year in $139.99 per month. This service does not appear to be available in the Wauzeka area.

Another area provider is WIConnect that offers transmitted internet to customers in a scattered number of communities in Southwest Wisconsin, including Mt. Sterling. Speeds are comparable to Bug Tussel Wireless speeds, but prices appear to be lower.

The sleeping giant in the room of broadband is the 3C Co-op, which  has a shovel-ready engineering plan to bring broadband internet through fiber-optic cable to the premises for the 3,605 unserved and underserved residences and businesses in the county.

3C Co-op Vice Chairman Emile Smith said the co-op’s organizers have been working toward making a fiber optic cable network in Crawford County a reality for about three years. The group formed four years ago, meeting with state and federal legislators, an internet specialist and Century Link staff, because they lacked broadband internet to run their businesses from home in an area of rural Seneca Township.

About a year ago, the group completed an extensive survey of the unserved and underserved residents of the county. The results from the survey, indicating that 69 percent of respondents would purchase 3C Co-op’s internet services, are incorporated into their plan.

The Rural Utility Service (RUS) of the USDA required such a survey for funding, 3C Co-op Chairman Jay McCloskey explained.

The 3C Co-op can begin building their fiber optic infrastructure when they obtain $20 million in funding, expected to come primarily from RUS loans and grants. The lowest speed that 3C Co-op would offer is 25 mbps down and 25 mbps up for $49.99. 

Bug Tussel’s standard price for that service of 25 mbps down and 5 mbps up would be $110.86 including their $8 equipment fee. Their discounted price would be $79.99.

McCloskey, of 3C Co-op, explained their plan would provide “symmetrical” service, with upload speeds that are the same as download speeds, which can be very important for business and other uses. Most plans offer much larger download speeds than upload speeds. That’s the case with Bug Tussel Wireless.

The 3C Co-op plans to offer 50 mbps up and 50 mbps down for $79.95 and 100 mbps up and 100 mbps down for $129.95

McCloskey said the group estimates it will need to lay over 1,000 miles of fiber optic cable to get the rest of the county on fiber optic cable.

While many think the $20 million price tag is too high, Smith and the other 3C Co-op organizers see it differently.

For instance, Bug Tussel estimates it will spend $5.6 million to build the 16 cellphone towers and other infrastructure for the proposed wireless system. The source of that money is not yet known. Bug Tussel also wants Crawford County to contribute $250,000 toward the project.

Smith explained that spending $20 million to deliver fiber optic cable to everyone in Crawford County, who currently can’t get it, is a smart thing to do. It’s something that will come to pay for itself through business and residential development.

To put it in perspective, McCloskey explained that construction of a two-lane rural undivided highway cost $2-3 million per mile. To construct a seven to 10-mile stretch of Highway 35 would cost as much as the 3C Co-op fiber-optic cable broadband plan.

The cost of maintenance of fiber optic system is minimal compared to road maintenance costs, according to McCloskey, which average over $4 million per year in Crawford County.

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