Multi-million dollar broadband recommendations unveiled for Marathon County; could reach 89–100% of homes

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MARATHON COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- A Marathon County-funded broadband study unveiled its assessment report Thursday night, which found large portions of the county as “unserved” or “underserved” by high-speed internet under Federal Communications Commission definitions.

The proposed broadband plan, developed by the Virginia-based engineering firm Design Nine, would provide the basic infrastructure needed to provide 25/3 megabits of broadband service to the county through a fixed point broadband wireless tower network and a county-wide gigabit fiber network. Currently, although the FCC in 2015 redefined standard broadband service as 25 megabits download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed, the report indicates that very few areas of Marathon County currently meet that standard.

According to the report, “Marathon County will fall farther and farther behind other areas of Wisconsin and the Midwest without a strategic plan to develop modern broadband infrastructure.” Governor Tony Evers has set a statewide goal of reaching highspeed internet service by 2025 under the Broadband Expansion Grant Program, after a 2018 FCC report found that 43% of rural Wisconsin did not have access to broadband service.

The Design Nine plan for Marathon County recommends a minimum of 32 new towers built, at a cost of $118,000 to $184,000 each, to reach 89% of homes across the county. In addition, the equipment, installation, and maintenance costs could reach into the millions, depending on how much of the plan the county applies, Marathon County IT Director Gerald Klein explained. Coverage to reach 100% of Marathon County homes would require at least ten additional towers, an optional measure of the six-phase program.

Funding the broadband program through state and federal grants would be a partial but overall insufficient way to fund the long term plan, according to the report. Design Nine’s Jack Maytum noted on Thursday that grants like the USDA Reconnect Program are notoriously difficult to qualify for and that local funding such as bonds would be an important component of the program.

“You’d probably have an easier time applying to Harvard, and probably as likely a chance of getting a grant as getting in,” Maytum said on Thursday.

According to Maytum, one reason for that is because certain federal grants like USDA Reconnect rely on self-reported data from internet service providers to determine what areas are “served”, “underserved” or “unserved.” Because ISPs are generous in their reporting to the FCC and frequently count a single home with high-speed internet as representative of an entire census tract having broadband, grants often rely on unreliable coverage maps when determining recipients.

“We don’t think grants would be a financially wise way to build and upgrade the whole network,” Maytum told the county board Thursday, adding that local partnerships and bonds would be options to explore.

Eventually, Maytum said the infrastructure will pay for itself. Klein identified several different potential revenue sources from the infrastructure, including leasing out the “dark” fiber, ISPs providing internet service off of the system, and private companies leasing the infrastructure for use. The county does not provide internet service directly, Klein noted.

The county will have to decide how to move forward with Design Nine’s recommendations, and how much of the plan to implement. The study began in July of 2019, and the report was finalized by the end of November and brought to the full county board on January 16.