Planners hope other municipalities will follow suit
After hearing about opportunities to make broadband access available and affordable throughout the town, the Baileys Harbor Planning Commission wasted no time in taking a step forward.
The commission voted unanimously Monday to recommend that the town board form a volunteer committee to stay abreast of funding opportunities and possible partnerships to bring fast, reliable internet service to almost every corner of the town.
“Right now, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You have the chance to get 60 cents on your dollar back in state or federal money,” said Kurt Kiefer, a Baileys Harbor resident who is a longtime Department of Public Instruction (DPI) executive, a former technological director for libraries throughout the state, and a colleague of former DPI director and current governor Tony Evers.
Kiefer said more grant money than ever before has become available to offset the costs of providing true high-speed broadband access. Evers has acknowledged severe shortages of quality access to adequate internet service in rural Wisconsin and pledged that 2021 will be the “year of broadband,” Kiefer said.
Not counting the likelihood of up to $800 million more in funding becoming available to Wisconsin through the pending federal infrastructure bill, Kiefer said Door County communities should line up soon for the installation of more fiber lines for excellent service.
He estimated the costs of fiber service at $5 million for Baileys Harbor. However, $3 million in grants should be easily available, he said, and at this moment, certain federal-relief funds may be used to count as a match for grants. Kiefer told the planning board the town might not actually see complete fiber installation for three to seven years. He encouraged the town to consider a low-interest loan through the state’s board of commissioners and public-lands trust, and he estimated that a low-interest loan to cover $2 million in fiber infrastructure would cost property owners $50 a year for a $250,000 home.
Steve Jenkins, executive director of Door County Economic Development Corporation (DCEDC), who was also at the meeting, encouraged investment in fiber and warned against entering long-term agreements for broadband service with cable-television companies. Kiefer said that if cable-television companies could make profits by providing internet service to all corners of the county, they would have done it years ago.
“This is a capital problem, not a technical problem,” Kiefer said.
He said within three years, cable broadband will be obsolete compared to fiber. Fiber-optic internet lines – “fiber” for short – travel about 70% as fast as the speed of light. Much of the current broadband service in Door County offers four megabytes (Mpbs) download and one megabyte upload, Kiefer said, while fiber can provide speeds of 100 Mpbs up and down.
He said the Washington Island Electric Co-op and Nsight Telservices are leading the way in the county by running fiber throughout the island. Although the island is a bit far removed to carry its service to the peninsula, Kiefer said communities throughout the county can afford quality broadband if they consider it to be crucial, necessary infrastructure.
In addition, he said Nsight already has run 96-strand fiber from the south end of the county to the northern tip of the peninsula, including directly through Baileys Harbor. The technology and communications company zigzagged fiber across the county near villages and unincorporated settlements to make it easier to connect.
The vision of providing broadband to most of the county, Kiefer said, is not much different than when electrical cooperatives and rural electric efforts spread electricity to people in remote locations throughout the United States. If electric companies and cooperatives could install posts in shallow lake water by island lighthouses near Baileys Harbor in the early 20th century and then put transformers on those posts, connecting residences and businesses via fiber should not be impossible.
“This is an infrastructure problem that can be solved just like every other infrastructure problem that’s been solved over the years,” Kiefer said.
Given Door County’s bedrock, fiber lines would need to be attached to utility poles in some places. Kiefer said Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) has shown cooperation with communities that want to use WPS poles for fiber. WPS can profit from leases. Meanwhile, the county can benefit in the near future by being ready for fiber installation because WPS has been rapidly replacing poles throughout the county during recent years, Kiefer said.
He and Jenkins said they hoped all municipalities in Door County would take advantage of the available funding to extend fiber-optic internet lines to almost every home and business in the county. Jenkins said that some communities in Door County, such as the Town of Liberty Grove, seem to be on board.
He added that interested parties are eager for early October, when they will see the results of the broadband study that’s currently underway across the county, spearheaded by DCEDC.