The Town of Osceola has been discussing broadband Internet access for some time and last week committed $80,000 to a fiber optic project in the town and neighboring townships.

Representatives from Lakeland Communication gave a presentation to the Osceola Town Board at the July 6 meeting regarding the expansion of broadband Internet services in the area. 

Access to high speed Internet has been a focal point of national news since the pandemic began in 2020. Families working and studying from home for an entire year revealed the inadequacies of rural internet nationwide, and as work from home jobs continue to increase in popularity, so too will the demand for reliable service. 

President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into law March 11, 2021. The $1.9 Trillion stimulus bill is meant to help restart the pandemic riddled economy, and part of that money has been allocated to broadband expansion. In Wisconsin, Gov. Evers committed $100 million to this project statewide, made available via Public Service Commission (PSC) grants. Lakeland Communications has been working with town officials to apply for one of those grants. Only certain parts of the county qualify for the grant. Eligibility is based on current Internet access and speed, determined by the Federal Communications Commission. 

“The project that we’re looking at encompasses part of the township of Osceola on county road M as the north border, and the south border would be the township line,” said Alec Mortel, a business development representative with Lakeland. “And then we’re looking at some portions in Farmington and Alden.” 

Mortel said the Farmington and Alden portions are relevant to the town of Osceola as well. 

“We’re hoping to combine the grants, seeing that the Osceola portion is small relative to what’s across the state,” he said. “Yes there’s a $100 million available in this process, but we have a suspicion that there will be many players coming to the table. We’re looking to make a bigger project more attractive to the PSC and more likely to get accepted or awarded.” 

The total cost of the proposed project is estimated at around $800,000. The board discussed using a portion of the town’s ARPA funds to pay 10 percent of that cost, or $80,000. Alden has already committed funding to the project, and Lakeland hopes Farmington will do the same. 

“We feel that by the township of Osceola committing financially to the project, it strengthens the application,” Mortel said. “It’s going to make it harder for the PSC to look at the application and walk away from it.” 

After some discussion, the board voted unanimously to approve funding 10 percent of the project. 

Several residents spoke in support of the project and of prioritizing broadband expansion in general. Distance learning and working from home were the most talked about issues. 

“Speeds are well below your ability to download a homework assignment, much less watch a video from a teacher. And it’s appalling to have a nurse whose providing hospice care not be able to contact her service people,” said Teresa Utke, who addressed the board before Lakeland’s presentation. “I don’t think there’s anything more important to infrastructure in our community right now than high speed Internet.” 

Area resident Diana Anderson also said children trying to learn from home is incredibly difficult with the current Internet options. 

“As a grandma I had kids at my house trying to do school work and it was impossible,” she said. “The kids were so frustrated, they were trying to listen and participate and learn and we just couldn’t do it. This is critical. I’m not even in (the project) area but I want it to begin because it’s important.” 

If the project were approved, work would begin in 2022. Lakeland would build what’s known as the “backbone” service, or the main fiber optic line. Much like a water system, individual residents would then have to tap into the main line to receive service. There is a fee associated with connecting to the backbone. Mortel said the per-customer cost for this project area would average around $2,000. The board also floated the idea of using another portion of ARPA funds to reimburse some of those costs, but no official action was taken on that idea. 

Mortel said this project would not only benefit current residents, but also perspective residents. 

“We’re getting a ton of calls from people scouting Polk County looking to leave the cities. The number one question is can you work from home and what’s available for Internet,” Mortel said. “It’s becoming the new highway.” 

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