Boulder Junction’s journey toward a dependable, high speed broadband has reached the next stages following two advisory votes that would first decide whether the plan to install high speed broadband throughout the town of Boulder Junction would be implemented, and the second would determine which option the town would opt for.
The process began last year, when the Economic Development and Connect Communities Committee began focusing on bringing high speed broadband to Boulder Junction following a 2017 economic development survey which indicated the lack of broadband Internet access to be one of Boulder?Junction’s economic challenges.
“In one fashion or another, the Internet touches each of our lives. Some say that high speed internet is no longer a luxury,” Boulder Junction EDCCC chair Dennis Aukstik said. “Many suggest that high speed internet is as necessary as electricity. Still, other people say that the Internet does not contribute to our community.”
Aukstik said the decision to install high speed broadband to the community was solely up to the electors, and the work conducted over the past 10 months coincided with the state’s plan to bring broadband access to areas in Wisconsin most in need.
“Our community has been presented with an extraordinary opportunity to enhance its connection to the Internet,” he said.
During the budget hearing and special town meeting of the electors on Thursday, Nov. 14, the voters in Boulder Junction heard a presentation from Bill Niemuth regarding three options for installing high speed broadband for the town of Boulder Junction.
Niemuth is a member of the broadband work group and reviewed for the audience what high speed broadband Internet was and the ways it could benefit the community.
While Niemuth said broadband was a foundation to build on, he reminded the audience it was not the “be all and end all.”
“The goal is not to bring high speed broadband to Boulder Junction,” he said. “The goal is to do other things. So we gotta keep our focus, keep our eye on really what’s important here, and it’s to continue to build the economy, so we can be sustainable, so we can continue to grow and we can continue to be successful and love it here.”
High speed broadband, Niemuth explained, was data transfer to and from the Internet, such as streaming, email, photos, web browsing, gaming, and more.
While most basic use of the Internet, such as checking email or web browsing, uses only one to five megabits per second (Mbps), the more devices that were connected required higher Mbps to maintain that speed.
“Most of Boulder Junction has service 10 Mbps or less,” Niemuth said.
Currently, the majority of the township uses DSL, which decreases in speed the further away from a node the device was.
Fiber optic cable, on the other hand, runs light, rather than data, through the cable that ultimately changes into data when it reaches the home, Niemuth explained.
“It is the best technology today and in the foreseeable future,” Niemuth said.
With the fiber optic cable, Niemuth said typical customer speeds between 25 Mbps and 1Gb an symmetrical service was typical.
Boulder Junction currently has 62 miles of fiber optic cable already in the ground and servicing the area, he said.
Niemuth explained the main reasons to invest in high speed broadband were split into four main categories: economic, educational, engagement, and entertainment.
“We know because we’ve been told by a lot of seasonal folks, if they had decent Internet service, decent high speed broadband where they could work from home, they would make Boulder Junction their full time residence,” Niemuth said.
Being able to market Boulder Junction as a high speed community would have other lasting effects than maintaining seasonal residents and visitors, Niemuth indicated, stating it could also attract new businesses to the town, increase property tax values from 5 to 11%, and recruit new and more employees for existing and new business.
“This comes from Broadband Now,” Niemuth said. “For small towns, having high speed Internet can be a critical factor in growth and prosperity. Studies have shown that increased Internet access has a positive effect on employment and economic growth in rural townships.”
According to his research, Niemuth said 21 to 25% of the United States’ population telecommuted regularly in 2015.
“That number has only grown, and it’s grown for a bunch of reasons,” Niemuth said.
From an educational standpoint, high speed broadband Internet would promote distance learning for kids as well as adults interested in continuing their education.
“Currently, we have high speed Internet at North Lakeland,” North Lakeland Elementary School superintendent Brent Jelinski said. “At the school, we have 1 Gb. We are doing a lot of great things at the school ... when they leave North Lakeland, we do not trust that they have access to high speed Internet when they get home.”
Jelinski mentioned there was a movement to replace physical textbooks, which Jelinski explained were outdated and expensive, with electronic textbooks (tech books), that were online and constantly updated.
“They cost about $50, per student, for five years for one of those tech books,” Jelinski said. “So there is a major cost savings.”
Cost savings aside, Jelinski said the tech books gave students an advantage in that they could access their textbooks wherever Internet service was available.
“High speed Internet is opening up education to students that we have never ever seen before,” he said. “Beyond our classroom walls, students continue to get education wherever they are.”
He added that high speed broadband would bring more families into the area, whether it be prospective students or the families of students who were open enrolled at North Lakeland.
High speed broadband would also increase engagement, Niemuth explained.
From video-conferencing with family and friends, to being able to access information, conduct research, and even use tele-health to keep residents in their home for longer.
“In many cases, what we’ve learned, is that you don’t even have to go and see a doctor anymore. You could be diagnosed at home if you have video conferencing and then also some diagnostic instruments,” Niemuth explained, adding that it was “fascinating.”
In terms of entertainment, high speed broadband would also allow the opportunity to move away from satellite dishes and toward streaming services.
“It is an opportunity for Boulder Junction,” Niemuth said. “We’re very unique in many, many ways, and that uniqueness brings people here ... There’s just something about it for all those people who come here during the summertime and live here. This could be marketed without any problem, in any way, shape, or form.”
One of the opportunities for Boulder Junction was through Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission grants.
“They provide grants, state funding, for building high speed broadband networks in communities, in counties,” Niemuth said.
According to Niemuth, there was a combined total of $48 million worth of grants in between 2020 and 2021, with the funding available in 2020 more than the previous six years combined.
He also said it was likely the Wisconsin Public Service Commission would provide a “couple of $1 million grants in 2020.”
Niemuth presented the audience with two options that would install high speed broadband across the town.
The first option Niemuth described would bring broadband connection to the area in phases over the course of three to four years, which would eventually offer broadband to the entire township.
The first phase would cover approximately 919 of the 1,353 living units in Boulder Junction and cost $3.1 billion, with CenturyLink contributed $715,000.
“Which leaves $1.2 million for grant funding and $1.2 million for Boulder Junction,” Niemuth said.
According to Niemuth, the tax impact would equate to an estimated $.03 cents per $1,000 for a 20-year loan and $.10 for a 15-year loan, while the impact on a $200,000 home would be a $6 increase for a 20-year loan, and a $20 increase for a 15-year loan.
The first phase, Niemuth said, would cover the majority of the businesses in Boulder Junction as well as the area where the most of the citizens lives in Boulder Junction. Unserved areas, such as South Trout Lake and Mann Lake, were also included in phase one of the project. With the first option, the project was projected to be completed in 2023.
Niemuth said the other phases would require additional funding.
The second option would cover the entire town over the course of two years. In the first phase of option two, both the main and west business areas of Boulder Junction would be covered, as well as other unserved areas; in the second phase, fiber to premise coverage of the entire town would be completed.
“This is fiber to the premise for each living unit in the town of Boulder Junction,” Niemuth said.
Option two would cost approximately $7.5 million with a $1.2 million contribution from CenturyLink.
Niemuth believes the maximum amount of grant funding the town could get from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission was $1.25 million, which would leave the town with a cost of $3.8 million.
The tax impact per $1,000 for the second option was estimated at $.25 for a 20-year loan and $.61 for a 15-year loan while the impact on a $200,000 home was estimated at $50 for a 20-year loan or $122 for a 15-year loan.
He also advised that as the project had not yet been engineered, costs were neither final nor binding.
Niemuth explained that with the connection of fiber optic cable to the premise came an optical network terminal (ONT), and once a resident had an ONT, they would have to subscribe to CenturyLink to get Internet service.
The question of whether CenturyLink was going to run the fiber optic cable to every home even if the resident opted out of the service was raised.
“We can’t force you to take it,” Niemuth said, saying there would have to be a sign-up which indicated the want for the service when the project came to it.
Niemuth said residents who opted out of the service would still be taxed, but they were “taxed already” from the fiber optic cable that had already been put in Boulder Junction previously.
“What happens if we don’t get the grant funding is that there’s a resolution that’s going to be put forward to the town board and it depends upon which option is selected, it’s not to exceed,” Niemuth explained. “It doesn’t commit the town to go forward.”
The first vote, to determine whether the voters of the Town of Boulder Junction would support a project bringing high speed broadband to Boulder Junction using a combination of funding, passed 99 to 15 in favor of the project.
Following the first vote was a second to determine which installation plan would be implemented was then voted upon with 18 voting for option one and 88 for option two.
In a meeting following the special meeting of the electors, the town board unanimously approved a resolution for the town to pursue option two for the high speed broadband expansion project with the project cost at $7.5 million with a $1.2 million contribution from CenturyLink, the PSC grant divided into two years with $1.25 million each year, and the town of Boulder Junction’s contribution not to exceed $3.8 million.
“I think it’s very important for this town,” town supervisor Laura Bertch said. “I’ve believed it since I first started hearing about it when I worked in the EDCCC group a couple of years ago that there needs to be a change in town. I think this is one of the steps that this group needs to continue on this path.”
Town supervisor Jim Galloway agreed that the delivery of high speed Internet was essential to Boulder Junction, but had reservations and questions whose answers weren’t yet available.
“I’m one of the people that favored option one,” he said. “One particular reason is that it’s the best return on investment. I’m uncomfortable with further borrowing of $3.8 million when we might be able to get by with borrowing less.”
Galloway said he had other reservations which he hoped would be taken care of in the future, such as defining the relationship between CenturyLink and Boulder Junction.
“I don’t know how we’re going to resolve those issues, or at what point we get to that,” he said.
“I agree with you,” town chairman Dennis Reuss said. “This is an important project and an important step, and if you got a comment based on the dollar amount, share it with us, if you’d like.”
“This is the best information we have today,” Aukstik said, saying the group had been working closely with CenturyLink for the past few months.
Aukstik assured the board if there was any more information, it would be forwarded to the board immediately.
“The step that we’re asking to take today is a commitment that’s necessary to demonstrate to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission that the town is committed to the project,” Aukstik said.
“There’s been no commitment on the behalf of Boulder Junction,” Niemuth said. “It’s been the workgroup talking with them, they have expended a significant amount of resources with no assurance at all that they’re gonna see a project.?That’s not easy in a corporation today.”
Niemuth said the resolution would demonstrate to CenturyLink that the town was committed to move forward and that it was his understanding more resources would be put into the project planning.
“There’s a lot to do on this yet, this is just another step,” he said.
Kayla Houp may be reached via email at [email protected]