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Towns get internet funding

September 26, 2018

MADISON -- A $150,690 state grant announced Thursday by the governor’s office will eventually help provide high-speed internet service to 1,330 households and 106 businesses in the towns of Watertown, Farmington and Ixonia.

The joint venture between the town of Watertown and Netwurx Internet, LLC, uses five existing structures in a $372,526 project to provide broadband coverage to unserved or underserved areas in the three townships.

The state broadband expansion program grant, administered by the Public Service Commission, funds 40 percent of the project’s cost. Netwurx, of North Lake provides the rest, mainly through construction and engineering costs, according to their grant application.

Broadband internet, defined as 25 mbps download speed and 5 mbps upload, is a necessity for businesses, farms and households but non-existent or expensive in rural areas, said Ken Baehler, a Netwurx senior engineer.

“I’ve had parents of schoolchildren come to me at the Dodge County Fair with $480 cell phone bills because they have three children using their data plans,” Baehler said.

Agriculture uses technology in milking parlors, on tractors and combines and producers need high-speed internet to move data from the barn to the farm office and from applications and data stored on a distant cloud data center to the farm, said Baehler.

“People don’t understand that small family farms are going under because they can’t get broadband. Successful, growing farms in the state use a lot of technology and need broadband to utilize it,” he said.

Small farmers trying to sell out to a big farming operation can’t get them interested if they don’t have access to high-speed internet.

“They can’t sell their land,” he said.

Lack of broadband access also harms real estate values.

“The first thing millennials ask, ’how’s the broadband here? If there is none, they’re not interested. Whole developments are on hold because there’s no high-speed internet,” Baehler said.

Access to healthcare also is through the internet. People can make medical appointments and chat with healthcare givers online but need high speed to do so.

In a survey of town of Watertown residents, 85 percent stated a need for broadband services, 77 percent said they needed it to access healthcare. Farmers said their internet was not reliable or adequate to meet their needs. Four schools and the Watertown Public Library sent letters of support for the better broadband in the area, according to the application.

When the service will be available is undetermined, said Baehler. Thursday’s grant announcement included 36 other successful applicants totaling $7 million statewide. The grant was preliminary and subject to a final PSC order which is expected within a month. At that point Netwurx has two years to get the service online under conditions of the grant.

“I haven’t told the PSC how the design would be implemented. It depends on how the grant money is made available,” he said.

This was Netwurx first grant application. After studying successful applications, Baehler said, he honed in on the economic development, healthcare access and educational benefits broadband could bring to the area.

“My family farmed in this area â€? and this is a way for me to give back to this area,” he said.

Town supervisor John Thoma, contacted Baehler after he joined Netwurx and wanted his help in providing broadband to the town.

An internet access committee was formed and did the work needed to assess the need for broadband and how to deliver it.

Netwurx mapped out how it will serve all 954 addresses in the town of Watertown before submitting a broadband grant application to the PSC, said Baehler.

Broadband service will include only portions of the towns of Farmington and Ixonia.

Thoma said the town finished in the top 10 of the 83 grant applications submitted to the PSC and was hopeful Monday that the preliminary announcement would be finalized so on.

He also called internet access a necessity to households and businesses.

People have told me they were sorry to have moved to the town because they can’t get internet and they may go after the real estate agent for not disclosing that,” he said.

Thoma lives close enough to Watertown that he can receive wireless internet from Netwurx and said it’s very reliable.

“I pay $82 a month for it. It’s cheaper in the city butâ€?other people in the town had no internet except on their cell phone and (data usage) can be a lot more expensive than that,” he said.

The cost to subscribe to broadband service also is currently unknown, said Baehler.

The design must be completed and negotiations conducted to rent space on cellular towers.

“Once they learn you have a grant, the rental cost goes way up,” Baehler said.

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