Clay Banks Voters Approve Funding for Broadband

Clay Banks voters attending a special town meeting Saturday authorized the town board to obtain funding from loans and grants of $2,715,186, plus costs, to finance the completion of a fiber-optic broadband system throughout the town.

Of those attending the special town meeting, town chair Myron Johnson said 65 received ballots, with 58 voting in favor and seven opposed.

The broadband funding authorization is for the installation of a communication package with Bertram Communications at a total cost of $3,637,972.

Johnson said Bertram guaranteed that overall cost, and also pledged in-kind contributions worth  $839,532. The County of Door will contribute $7,075, and the town will designate $34,552 in American Rescue Plan Act funds, leaving a balance of $2,715,186.

The town previously applied for state and federal grants to help fund the project, but so far has been unsuccessful.

“We’re underserved or unserved [for broadband] – we have nothing,” Johnson said. “But we did find out that grants were awarded to communities that put a larger portion of money into it, even though they had a lot of this equipment in place already.”

The town’s Broadband Committee, which includes all three town board members as well as citizen members, discussed at the one-hour special town meeting what led up to the decision to recommend the project with Bertram.

Johnson said the committee favored having “a communitywide project and also a comprehensive communications system.”

“We do have problems in Clay Banks,’ he said. “We have no emergency communications along the lakeshore. We, of course, don’t have broadband. But we also have no cellphone service along the lakeshore, or very limited.”

Johnson said the town has been working on a plan to incorporate emergency communications, broadband and cell phone service together with new technology through a fiber-optic system.

The town favored Bertram out of three internet service providers it interviewed, Johnson said, because the company supported the concept of a communitywide program with a buried fiber optic system that is “reliable, and it’s very versatile.”

“Underground service will last with this technology and the system [from Bertram Communications] for well over 30 years,” he said. “It’s protected from above-ground danger.”

Given the lakeshore, bluffs and farmland in Clay Banks, Johnson said an underground fiber-optic project would work better for broadband service than a “haphazard tower system throughout the town.”

Committee member Tom Drager said he’s had “issues with connectivity” in the approximately 38 years he’s lived in the town.

“But I don’t have near the problems that some of you have that live below the bluff towards the lakeshore,” he said. “I know I’ve had my problems. I can’t imagine what those problems are further down, where you’re totally blocked from signals.”

Drager said Bertram offered to provide the town with an “active, fiber-optic system,” which means each house will receive a dedicated fiber strand to be able to provide faster internet speeds than the “passive systems” where users share a fiber.

He said Bertram offered the town a user price for its “active” system at around the same cost as a “passive” system.

“We were one of the first communities that they were approaching – trying to get a foothold in Door County is what they were after – so we’re sitting on an attractive starter-up price, and it expires in the spring,” he said.

Drager said monthly base service would have a speed of 250 megabytes per second for $48 a month, with that price guaranteed for the next five years.

Johnson said the base service charge and property tax increase to finance the project would be lower than the average monthly fee of $96.93 that town residents said they were currently paying for internet service, according to figures Johnson presented based on a town-wide survey.

With no grant funding and the town financing the entire $2,715,186 over 20 years at 5.25%, the figures projected a monthly savings of around $7.50 with the additional property taxes per household averaging $38.45 a month.

But based on the town obtaining 40% grant funding, those figures projected the savings would be more than $28 a month with additional property taxes averaging only $17.84 a month per household.  

Besides the project making good sense for internet services in the town, Drager said those having problems with getting telephone service in the town could use a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system at home with a fiber optic system installed.

In areas where there is no cell phone service, Drager said the company indicated it would supply what’s called “dark fiber” to the county for emergency services with no monthly fee to the county, making it possible for the county to come in and put up “mini-towers,” or use the system with the county’s own equipment.

Doug Weimer, a committee member and former Southern Door Fire Department chief, said there could be cost savings realized if the conduit for broadband could be buried at the same time as power lines.

“We have a real benefit here in the town as much as we’re not dealing with any areas with bedrock,” he said. “If you’ve seen how fast cable can be put in areas where the digging is easy, they’ve been putting in up to five miles a day.”

If a contract is signed soon enough so that Bertram can do the engineering and get the preparation work done to be able to get in the ground next spring, Johnson said the project might be done next year at the end of fall.