- Brown County would use sales tax money to finance a $27.2 million broadband expansion proposal
- Bug Tussel Wireless would extend 25 Mbps to majority of Brown County; fiber lines would serve 6,000.
- Agreement to extend infrastructure could include price caps for county residents.
- County Board expected to consider the terms later this year.
A Green Bay-based wireless company proposes to extend high-speed internet to thousands of properties in rural Brown County where service is slow, and place a cap on monthly rates.
But to make it happen, the company is asking for a nearly $30 million loan that would be taken from the county’s sales tax revenues.
Bug Tussel Wireless submitted a proposal to extend 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds to almost every part of the county, while it also installs fiber optic lines that would extend 300 Mbps and higher-speed service to an estimated 6,000 underserved homes , farms and businesses.
The FCC set 25/3 speeds as the baseline for high-speed internet, often called broadband, capable of handling basic functions like email and internet browsing plus some high-demand applications like video conferences or online gaming. Someone with 25 Mbps could also download a high-definition movie in about half the time it would take at 10 megabits per second.
Homes with two or more people who require the use of multiple, high-demand functions like gaming, virtual learning or 4K video streaming will likely need internet service that’s faster than 25/3, per the FCC’s Household Broadband Guide.
Bug Tussel’s proposal comes as a consumer demand has led north Wisconsin internet service providers to introduce higher-speed services throughout the region.
In a Sept. 21 presentation to the Brown County Board, Bug Tussel CEO Steve Schneider laid out an infrastructure proposal and a timeline for when services might be available.
Bug Tussel would install a fiber optic cable network that extends from existing, county- and municipally-owned fiber lines out into rural areas of the county, as well as to wireless and emergency towers. It would use some existing, county-owned towers and build additional ones in new coverage areas.
This network of towers and fiber optic cable would enable the company to provide 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload service to more than 90% of the county within a year. Schneider said underserved areas would be targeted first with a goal of offering service within nine months of starting work.
The added towers would also improve cellular phone service in those areas.
Bug Tussel expects the fiber optic cable installation to take up to two years. The company would also connect any property within a set distance from the fiber line’s route. Current estimates are about 6,000 properties would receive fiber cable.
Properties connected to the fiber optic line would be able to buy 300 Mbps download and upload service or 1 gigabit per second service from Bug Tussel.
A property or properties not connected to fiber line could contact Bug Tussel to ask about getting fiber extended to their property, but that would be subject to a separate fee charged to the property owner.
Company already struck deals with Kewaunee, Oconto, other counties
Founded in 2003, Bug Tussel has grown rapidly in recent years as it partnered with individual counties to extend cellular, wireless and fiber infrastructure with a focus on rural, unserved areas of Wisconsin other internet service providers have overlooked.
Nearby, Bug Tussel has partnerships with Kewaunee, Oconto, Calumet and Fond du Lac counties.
From the county’s perspective, the proposal is the culmination of planning, study and development of Brown County’s fiber optic network that dates to 2009. Local planning and network development ramped up pandemic in 2016, and the COVID-19 highlighted the need for fast, reliable broadband service across rural Wisconsin.
County staff members originally sought approval for a plan to extend fiber optic lines to upgrade the county’s 911 emergency system towers. The Rural Broadband Subcommittee saw an opportunity to upgrade the 911 system and extend higher-speed internet service into underserved regions at the same time.
The subcommitte requested proposals from internet service providers, and Bug Tussel responded. County Board member Richard Schadewald, the subcommittee chair, said the plan “encompasses everything the committee wanted” from an expansion plan, including extending high-speed service to more than 40 parks, facilities and sites around the county.
How would this be paid for?
To pay for the infrastructure required, Bug Tussel has asked the county for a $27.2 million loan at 4% interest to be repaid over 30 years. The county would use money from its half-percent sales tax for the loan.
The two sides still need to finalize the agreement’s terms and bring it back to the Brown County Board for final approval, likely before the end of the year.
The county would receive a lien on all the fiber optic cables and towers until the loan is paid off. If Bug Tussel went out of business, the county would receive all the company’s infrastructure in Brown County and a pro-rated share of its assets, currently estimated at about $300 million.
If the loan is approved, Bug Tussel likely could start construction no sooner than 2023.
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Does everyone in Brown County get fiber to their property?
No, not right now.
August Neverman, the county’s broadband director, estimated it would cost at least $300 million, maybe as much as $400 million, to extend fiber lines to every property in Brown County.
Schneider said the nearly $30 million project Bug Tussel proposes would reach some rural areas, but would provide infrastructure other internet service providers, like Charter or Nsight, can tap into to further build out fiber networks in the county.
“We’ll invest the first $30 million to encourage others to invest beyond,” Schneider said.
Bug Tussel makes money through subscribers and by leasing its fiber infrastructure to other internet service providers who want to extend service to new customers. Beyond the county-supported work, Schneider said Bug Tussel also would pursue state and federal grants to further extend its fiber network into unserved pockets of Brown County.
How much will high-speed internet cost me?
Bug Tussel would offer service at three speeds and would agree, as part of the agreement with Brown County, to cap the price residents pay for a set period of time, most frequently three years, Schneider said.
He told Brown County Board members Bug Tussel would cap 25/3 Mbps service at $50 a month, 300/300 Mbps service at $75 and 1 Gbps service at $100.