By LeAnn R. Ralph
TOWN OF STANTON — Although some parts of Dunn County have very good Internet access, progress is slow in other parts of the county, and residents would like to see much more improvement.
State Representative Rob Stafsholt, 29th Assembly District, and Angie Dickinson, the state director of broadband for the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, held a public informational meeting about broadband at the Stanton Town Hall June 26.
The 29th Assembly District covers the western one-quarter of Dunn County, including the city of Menomonie, as well as the eastern two-thirds of St. Croix County.
About 40 people attended the meeting.
Many of those who spoke said their ability to telecommute or to run their home-based businesses was severely hampered by a lack of reliable, fast Internet access.
Several people noted their children or grandchildren were unable to do homework at home that involved using the Internet.
One woman pointed out that so many functions of daily life, such as filing taxes, checking bank statements or making payments, require Internet access that access to the Internet has now become as important as telephone service or electrical service.
The Wisconsin Legislature has expanded the broadband grant program to help Internet Service Providers (ISPs) install infrastructure to improve Internet access, Dickinson said.
The grants are administered through the Public Service Commission.
In the first year of the grants, $500,000 was available. Last year, $1.5 million in broadband grant money was allocated, and in the last budget, $13 million was allocated, she said.
The broadband infrastructure grants are available to telecoms, for profit businesses, non-profit organizations, cooperatives and municipalities. If a municipality applies for a grant, the municipality must partner with a telecom, a for-profit business or non-profit organization or a cooperative, Dickinson explained.
So far, 101 grants have been awarded in 46 counties, she said.
The state statute lists priority factors for the grant awards, and the PSC commissioners make the decision on which applications receive grants, Dickinson said.
The priority factors include matching funds (although not required), a public/private partnership, and the effects on economic development, community development, access to health care from home and access to educational opportunities for students from home, Dickinson said.
The PSC commissioners want to know how improved broadband will impact telecommuting opportunities, farms and homes, she said.
The state also has a Broadband Forward designation for communities that have streamlined their permit process for broadband infrastructure, Dickinson said.
The deadline for the next round of grant applications is July 16, and following the deadline will be a three-week comment period to allow residents to make comments about the grant applications. August 7 will be the last day public comments will be accepted, and then the grant applications will be reviewed. The PSC will make the final decision on the grant awards in September or October, Dickinson said.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as 25 megabits per second of download speed and 3 megabits per second of upload speed, she said.
For the Wisconsin broadband grants, any area that has less than two providers with 25/3 is eligible for the grants, so almost the entire state is eligible, Dickinson said.
Many of the rural areas in Dunn County served by CenturyLink, for example, have download speeds of 400 or 500 kilobits per second, which is only a fraction of the acceptable Internet speed as defined by the FCC.
According to an article published in 2017 in the Wisconsin State Journal, the Federal Communications Commission will be providing $870 million to Wisconsin over a 10-year period to help improve Internet access.
Under the Connect America Fund II, the FCC will be providing $570 million over six years to CenturyLink, Frontier and AT&T to provide service to 230,000 homes and businesses in the rural areas of Wisconsin.
Under the Connect America program, CenturyLink has already received $332 million, and Frontier and AT&T also have received tens of millions of dollars, Dickinson said.
Centurylink, Frontier and AT&T have until the end of 2020 to build the infrastructure to improve Internet access, Dickinson said.
When UW-Extension and Dunn County issued a survey last year for county residents about their Internet access, CenturyLink was the company that received the most complaints.
One woman in the audience said CenturyLink had advertised Internet access in her neighborhood for years — even though there was no access available. The woman’s neighbor, not knowing the service was not available, signed up with CenturyLink and began paying the monthly access fee, only to discover there was no access. The neighbor spent a long time trying to get the money back she had paid for a service that did not exist, the woman said.
Pot of money
Terry Nichols, a resident in the Town of Colfax, said he had gone to the state Department of Revenue about a “pot of money” he had found that could be used to help improve Internet access.
The “pot of money” is a tax on telecom companies that disappears into the state’s general fund, instead of being used to improve broadband, and the Legislature needs to create a bill so the money can be used to help the state residents who paid the tax, Nichols said.
In 2013, the telecom tax was $67.3 million; in 2014, it was $73.2 million; in 2015, it was $81.5 million; in 2016, it was $76.5 million, and in 2017, it was $70.8 million, he said.
All together, since 2013, the money amounts to $370 million.
“Broadband is not partisan,” Nichols said, encouraging Rep. Stafsholt to “reach across the aisle.”
“Why is the telecom tax going into the general fund?” he asked.
Another man in the audience read off the list of local, state and federal taxes he pays on his AT&T monthly bill that added up to over $11.
“Lots of taxes are being paid, but (the money) is not being used,” he said.
One woman in the audience said she raises goats for meat and depends on the Internet to market her product.
Some days her Internet access works fairly well, and other days it is unreliable and slow.
Her husband is in sales, and half of his time is spent telecommuting from home.
On those days when her husband is home working, the woman said she cannot do anything on the Internet because the speed slows down drastically if they are both working online.
The woman said she was concerned when the PSC reviews applications for broadband grants, that if the box is checked for providing service, there would not be any standards for the service.
For the FCC’s Connect America Fund and the Alternative Connect America Model (ACAM) intended to help smaller ISPs, the Internet speed must be a minimum of 10 megabits per second of download speed and 1 megabit per second of upload speed, Dickinson said.
One man in the audience noted AT&T had agreed to provide 10 megabits of download speed to him for $650 per month.
One man in the audience who lives south of Elk Mound said CenturyLink had installed fiber optic cable in his yard but would not connect his house to the fiber optic.
A CenturyLink representative had told him the company had fulfilled the grant obligations to install infrastructure but that they were not required to hook up the community.
For the state grants, the projects will not be complete until the customers are connected, Rep. Stafsholt said.
Another man in the audience said 24/7 Telcom had plowed in fiber to his driveway but he had been told it would cost $16,000 to connect his house.
The driveway is a shared driveway with six other houses, he noted.
The man said he uses a T-Mobile “hotspot” that costs $89 per month and provides only enough data to watch two television shows on the Internet.
Rep. Stafsholt, who lives in Erin Prairie in St. Croix County, said he could relate to using a wifi box for Internet access.
Several people in the audience spoke in glowing terms of a 700 megahertz service that had been offered by 24/7 Telcom and said they were extremely disappointed when the company discontinued the service.
One man said he had been told 24/7 Telcom discontinued the service because the company did not have enough customers. Another woman said if she had known that, she would have volunteered her time to help the company market the service.
At one point during this past year, Rep. Stafsholt said he and the rest of the Republican caucus in the Legislature were discussing the possibility of providing laptops for students in public schools so students could access the Internet at home to do homework.
Rep. Stafsholt said he asked what the students in rural areas were supposed to use their laptops for — paperweights?
The other legislators apparently had looked at Rep. Stafsholt as if he had grown two heads.
The other legislators had no idea there were areas of the state with no Internet access or very poor Internet access, he said.
As part of a $7.2 million referendum, the Colfax school district has purchased laptops for all students that middle school students and high school students can take home with them. The school district has made a conscious effort to not assign any homework requiring Internet access since the access is poor or non-existent in some of the rural areas of the school district.
Rep. Stafsholt said other types of Internet access also should be developed.
One of those methods is television “white space,” which uses unused television frequencies to provide Internet access, he said.
Television frequencies are regulated by the FCC, so the federal government would have to approve the use, Rep. Stafsholt said, noting Microsoft is currently working on developing the technology.
One man in the audience said he and his family love living in Dunn County because they are close to their child’s grandparents.
The man said he and his family could live anywhere in the world because their business is conducted on the Internet.
“We can’t continue to live here without good Internet,” he said.
Rep. Stafsholt noted town boards can start the process for obtaining a grant to improve broadband access, and state elected officials and the state broadband office can help in finding an ISP with which the township can partner.
One of the grant applications that Dickinson said had touched her the most was in Oconto County.
A small township, at a town meeting of the electors, decided they wanted to improve their Internet access.
The town board had recently sold their old used patrol truck for $420 and had used that money on the grant application as “matching funds,” she said.
When the grant applications are reviewed, the amount of the matching funds is not what is important, it is the situation in which the grant would be applied and the situation of the community, Dickinson said.
Small communities with limited budgets should absolutely apply for the state broadband grants, she said.
One person in the audience wondered if Dunn County had committed any money for matching funds for the broadband grants.
No one at the meeting was able to answer the question.
So far, the state has awarded $611,000 in broadband grants to Dunn County, Dickinson said.