By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — The Dunn County Board’s Community Resources and Tourism Committee has directed the county’s planning division to move forward with developing a plan to expand broadband county wide.
Expanding high-speed Internet access in Dunn County is a broad topic, said Bob Colson, Dunn County zoning administrator and county planner, at a meeting of the community resources and tourism committee February 22.
Sheila Stori, county board supervisor from Menomonie and chair of the committee, noted that a meeting had been held the previous evening with a number of stakeholders about how best to move forward with expanding broadband.
Many people who live in rural areas understand the problems with Internet access, which include speeds that are not much better than dial-up through old telephone lines where no fiber optic network is available. With such slow Internet speeds, online videos either load very slowly or will not load at all, and if they do load, they start and stop and start and stop, making it impossible to watch them.
Checking weather radar with slow Internet speeds can be a challenge, too, along with accessing certain websites that contain many images.
Wi-fi that can be accessed through a “hotspot” on a cellular telephone provides much faster Internet access but is not necessarily available in all areas of the county, and even if it is available, the cost to add enough data to make it useful would be prohibitive if the provider does not offer unlimited data (think Internet access that might cost $600 a month or more for the additional data).
Libraries in Dunn County report seeing people sitting in their parking lots with cell phones and laptop computers to access the Wi-fi available from the library.
In Colfax, for example, when the weather is nice, people are often seen sitting in Tower Park next to the Colfax Public Library with cell phones and laptop computers.
Providing broadband for all of Dunn County is an economic development issue and it is a quality of life issue, Colson said.
Colson distributed a summary to committee members of the meeting about broadband.
“Providing Dunn County residents and business owners with reliable access to broadband is a lofty goal,” Colson wrote.
“At first blush, it seems like a simple and straightforward task. As you dig in, it immediately becomes much larger, and the complexity of achieving the goal expands depending on what it means ‘to provide Dunn County residents and businesses reliable access to broadband,’” he wrote.
“Agreeing on ‘what this means’ is essential because this simple exercise will drive the scope of work,” Colson continued.
The scope of work would include figuring out what service is currently available, which companies provide that service and where the service is provided in the county, Colson said.
Having a gap analysis to detail where service is available in Dunn County and where no service is available would supply Dunn County with information that would be needed to write a grant for money to assist with expanding broadband, he said.
According to Colson’s summary, “The Planning Division proposes to collaborate with UW-Extension, Dunn County Economic Development Corporation and area service providers to perform a Gap Analysis to better understand ‘where we are at’ and to present a timeline for completing the analysis at your March meeting.”
The Gap Analysis will include existing infrastructure, service area agreements and planning efforts to upgrade, extend or expand service.
“There are a lot of people who come into this,” Colson said, adding that there is a “great potential for many partners.”
The Gap Analysis also would help avoid duplicating any services already available, he said.
“It would get everyone facing in the same direction,” Colson said.
The community resources and tourism committee is an appropriate place to start and to provide oversight without diverting county resources, said Paul Miller, county manager.
Completing an analysis of what exists and where there are gaps “is a great way to get started,” he said.
This kind of groundwork is essential for applying for grant money, Miller said.
Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget for 2017-2019 includes $35 million for rural broadband expansion, Miller noted.
Depending on what kind of fiber optic cable is installed and the method used (plowing or boring), the cost is estimated to range from $40,000 to $100,000 per mile.
At some point in the process, a project manager would be needed to coordinate partnerships with service providers and local or regional groups and organizations, Colson said.
A project manager also would be in charge of writing state and federal grant applications and overseeing the implementation of new infrastructure, such as fiber, hard wire and wireless, he said.
Broadband is as essential as roads, Miller said.
The Internet Service Providers (ISPs) may be persuaded to participate in Dunn County’s rural broadband initiative if the county can secure grant money, he said.
The infrastructure would then become the property of the ISPs after it is installed, Miller said.
“This is the beginning of a plan,” Stori said.
“If we can evaluate what we have for gaps, we will begin to position ourselves,” Miller said.
The Dunn County Community Resources and Tourism Committee unanimously approved a motion to direct the county’s planning division to move forward with starting to develop a plan for broadband expansion.
A report on the progress of the planning division is expected at the community resources and tourism committee’s next meeting March 22.