In an effort to get more homes and businesses logged onto the internet, Jefferson County is applying for a grant from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission that would increase broadband access across the county.

The PSC is awarding up to $24 million in Broadband Expansion Grants in 2020 to underserved areas of the state, defined as an area with less than two broadband service providers with a speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and three Mbps for uploads.

Jefferson County has plans for an approximately $3.5 million project that will expand internet access to people from all four corners of the county. The grant application will request about $1.5 million from the PSC, with the county providing $250,000 and service providers Netwurx Internet and Bertram Communications providing the remainder, according to County Administrator Ben Wehmeier.

“Throughout the county, each of the entities are focused on areas that are underserved and unserved. (The project) hits a good percentage of county as a whole; it’s not just the northeast or northwest portions of the county,” Wehmeier said. “We’re trying to use this as a big project, a big idea to solve big problems.”

The 2020 broadband expansion grant process is much larger than in years past for both the state and the county. In 2019, the PSC awarded $7,053,577 in grants — with Jefferson County getting $150,690.

The county’s 2019 broadband expansion project — which ultimately cost $372,526 when the government and private contributions were added together — was a pilot program focusing on the towns of Farmington, Ixonia and Watertown. By the end of 2019, this project is expected to have given internet service to 257 residential properties, 28 agribusinesses, two multi-dwelling units and 68 businesses, according to the county’s Broadband Working Group.

The ability to continue expansion of previous projects is a key factor in the grant-awarding process, according to the PSC application guidelines. Wehmeier said this is one of Jefferson County’s biggest draws.

“Part of this is building on what the Public Service Commission has put in the grant,” Wehmeier said. “Expandable services, as you build network, how can you expand it to continue to provide service — to provide greater services to businesses, residences.”

The project’s expandability isn’t the only characteristic Jefferson County benefits from, according to Wehmeier. While other parts of the state, especially toward the north, have more unserved and underserved areas, expanding access in Jefferson County’s underserved areas impacts a large amount of people.

“Part of it is the impact, and the needs upstate or other parts of Wisconsin are just as important as Jefferson County,” Wehmeier said. “The need for both are great; one thing we can show is how many folks are impacted. Especially with our growth, we talk a lot about how we can become a bridge between Milwaukee and Madison.”

The grant also requires governments enter into a private-public partnership to qualify. Jefferson County benefits from having two private businesses involved, according to Wehmeier.

“We were lucky enough to have two companies who wanted to partner with us,” the administrator said.

Wehmeier, who said he thinks the county has a pretty good shot at being awarded the grant, said there are ways residents can help.

To boost its chances of landing the grant, the county is looking for residents to respond to an internet service survey and file letters of support for the project prior to the grant application date of Dec. 19.

Both the survey and the letters of support — which can be filled out at the county’s website — help the county complete the contours of what Wehmeier called “the story” of the application.

“The application itself is being worked on to develop the formal narrative,” Wehmeier said. “That includes collection of data to show why we need to do this. Partners and stakeholders participating in the survey and sending letters to share their stories.”

The survey helps the county illustrate exactly what parts of the county need help.

The PSC uses data coverage maps created by the Federal Communications Commission that break areas out by census block. However, the problem with using census blocks, Wehmeier said, is the data can be skewed by just a few people in the block having access.

The survey lets the county show individuals being missed by the FCC data.

The responses play another role, as well - they help the county build up the story of people who need better access to the internet.

“The goal between the maps and survey data is to help tell the story, too,” Wehmeier said. “The questions in terms of impacts it has as far as quality of life. Education, business impacts. Most businesses — whether its advanced manufacturing or farms big and small — need internet access.”

While the survey responses and maps start to tell the story of people who need more access, letters from community members and stakeholders help round it out.

“They’re going to be huge,” Wehmeier said. “Stories talking about a business owner who tries to do work at home and cannot. A young person trying to do homework and trying to find a hotspot at McDonald’s.”

The push for more internet access — especially in rural areas — is a big effort in Wisconsin and nationally.

“This is the infrastructure of the future,” Wehmeier said, comparing the effort to increase access to that of bringing electricity to rural areas in the 1930s.

An FCC report found 8.7 percent of Wisconsin residents lack access to at least one internet service provider with a download speed of 25 mbps or greater. Most of those people, the report found, live in rural areas.

A national study, done by BroadbandNow — an organization working to improve internet access to Americans — found that Wisconsin ranked No. 32 in connectivity, with 85.3 percent of people having broadband coverage.

New Jersey was the most connected state, with 99-percent coverage, and Montana was the worst, with 69.2-percent coverage.

The Jefferson County connectivity survey and letter of support information can be found at www.jeffersoncountywi.gov.

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