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By LeAnn R. Ralph
HUDSON — Broadband Internet access could soon be coming to under-served and unserved areas of St. Croix County.
The St. Croix County Board has approved a resolution establishing a $3 million broadband grant program using $3 million of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funds to supplement Internet Service Provider (ISP) grant applications to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin and to provide connectivity assistance to individual households in unserved or under-served areas of St. Croix County with no fiber options available.
The next round of PSC grant applications to help ISPs install broadband is due March 17, said Ken Witt, county administrator, at the St. Croix County Board’s January 4 meeting.
All together, for this grant cycle, $100 million is available. During the last grant cycle when $100 million also was available, the PSC received $400 million in requests, he said.
The PSC grants will help ISPs to install fiber optic Internet service, and St. Croix County will use the ARPA money to match 25 percent of the project costs.
Witt said he had talked to representatives for the ISPs serving — or that would plan to serve — St. Croix County and that the companies are writing the grant applications to receive 50 percent of the project costs through PSC grants.
St. Croix County would cover another 25 percent of the project cost with the county’s ARPA money, and the ISPs would provide the remaining 25 percent of the cost, he said.
The original resolution was written to provide $1.5 million in St. Croix County ARPA funds, but Witt said the ISPs have indicated they could use $3 million to $4 million from St. Croix County.
Witt recommended that the county board increase the amount of ARPA money available for the broadband grant program.
St. Croix County has already received the first half of the ARPA money and is expecting another $8.7 million in May, he said.
The additional $1.5 million should come out of the ARPA money St. Croix County will receive in the spring, Witt said.
According to background information provided to the county board, St. Croix County plans to reach out to townships to join in the partnership on qualified projects.
Cities, towns and villages also received a certain amount of ARPA money, which was awarded based on population.
Earlier guidance from the federal government indicated that townships could spend the money on sewer, water or broadband, although the parameters of what the money can be used for have since been expanded.
Greg Tellijohn, St. Croix County Board supervisor from New Richmond representing District 14, asked about the formation of a committee or a commission to assess the grant applications.
A three-member panel will review the grant applications for the county’s money, Witt said.
Judy Achterhof, county board supervisor from Emerald representing District 17, said she hoped the committee would make decisions based on equal access across the county rather than by the numbers of people who would be served.
There are no options for fiber Internet access for residents who live in the Eastern part of St. Croix County, she said.
The western part of St. Croix County already has high-speed Internet available, but the one ISP that serves the eastern part of the county has no plans to improve the Internet service, Achterhof said.
The ISPs have projects they want to do to expand access in the Eastern part of the county, Witt said.
“It’s coming,” he said.
Rick Ottino, county board supervisor from Hudson representing District 8, said that at a past St. Croix County Board meeting, a representative for Baldwin Telecom said it would cost “north of $40 million” to provide high-speed Internet access in St. Croix County, so $3 million “seems like a drop in the bucket.”
The $40 million estimate was to serve everyone in St. Croix County, Witt said.
If the PSC provides $20 million in grant money, and the ISPs provide $10 million, that leaves $10 million for St. Croix County to cover, he said.
The $3 million “is making good headway” and would cover 30 percent of the county that needs to be served, Witt said.
Ottino said he could see the amount of money expected from St. Croix County “snowballing.”
The money will be for ISPs to install infrastructure, and that will be the end of St. Croix County’s commitment, Witt said.
The second part of the resolution establishes a program to provide connectivity assistance to St. Croix County residents in unserved or underserved areas of the county.
The second part is for households “off the beaten path,” Witt said.
The program will provide up to $500 to individual households through reimbursement to help them connect to 100mb service, he said, noting that the 100mb service is part of the ARPA requirement.
The grant will be awarded as a reimbursement for up-front connection costs and is not intended to cover the cost of bringing fiber from the road to the house, according to background information provided to the county board.
An example would be Starlink (satellite Internet service), which provides 114mb of service and has an up-front connection fee of $499.
Starlink currently provides service to western St. Croix County, and the company has indicated service will be expanded to eastern St. Croix County sometime this year, Tellijohn said.
How long will the connectivity reimbursement be available? he asked.
The reimbursement program will go through June, but the window can be extended, Witt said.
The reimbursement program can be re-evaluated and the program can be refined after the county receives the second round of ARPA money, he said.
The St. Croix County Board unanimously approved an amendment adding $1.5 million in ARPA money to the grant program, for a total of $3 million.
The St. Croix County Board also unanimously approved the amended resolution establishing the broadband grant program for IPSs and to provide connectivity assistance for residents as well as amending the 2022 budget to include the $3 million in ARPA funds.