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A tower builder and climber from Red Tail Tower, LLC. performs maintenance on a Bug Tussel Wireless, LLC. tower. Fond du Lac County is partnering with Bug Tussel to expand broadband access in rural areas.

Growing up, Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel’s mother used to tell him stories about when electricity came to the family farm.

“You would think the first thing they wanted was electric lights, but that wasn’t it at all,” Buechel said. “They wanted to buy a radio, so they could hear from the outside world because they were out in the rural areas. And, other than going to church on Sunday, there wasn’t a whole lot of interaction with folks.”

Rural residents in Fond du Lac County may soon have a similar experience as a broadband expansion project in the county aims to increase access to high speed internet, while also laying the foundation for further internet connectivity.

The county will be the prime issuer of $80 million in bonds to support a multi-county broadband expansion project by Bug Tussel Wireless, LLC.

Last month, the Fond du Lac County Board approved a resolution to enter an agreement with Bug Tussel and subsequent intergovernmental agreements between the counties benefiting from the project. Those counties include Waushara, Iron, Wood, Marathon and Jackson, which will each guarantee their portion of the debt.

The Fond du Lac County portion of the project will include roughly 160 miles of fiber optic cable, six wireless broadband towers and 10 cellular service towers also providing broadband.

Fond du Lac County anticipates receiving $13 million in broadband upgrades, and will only be paying for its portion of the project, Buechel noted.

He said the county did a similar project with Bug Tussel in 2012, when it issued debt to the company to increase internet access.

This time around, Bug Tussel will repay the debt in $80,000 installments over the next 30 years, but Buechel anticipates the debt to be repaid sooner.

Bug Tussel will pay a set percentage of the debt each year as the debt goes down, so as the debt level decreases, the payments will decrease as well, he said.

“However, we’re probably going to get it upfront, rather than go out 30 years,” Buechel said. “That’s how they prefer it and probably for our budget it would be better just to do it upfront.”

Likewise, Bug Tussel President and CEO Steve Schneider told the Fond du Lac County Board that his goal was “to cost the taxpayers nothing.”

“We are basically getting the benefit of using your credit rating to get lower cost capital, which makes it much more viable for us than if we had to borrow at higher rates or raise additional equity to do that,” he said, noting the company is offering all of its assets in Fond du Lac County as collateral if the loan is not repaid.

Buechel explained that the other counties are in different steps and aren’t ready for the debt issuance, which is why Fond du Lac County is the prime issuer of the debt.

The project will primarily focus on the “middle mile,” which connects the core network to a local network plant. Conversely, the “last mile” connects homes and businesses to the core network.

Buechel said Bug Tussel will extend the fiber optic cable to “critical points” in Fond du Lac County, such as municipal buildings and schools, while building a fiber ring that providers can connect to.

While the company will connect to some homes and businesses, Buechel said the county will explore partnerships with other providers to complete the final mile.

Fond du Lac County will receive about $20 million from the federal government over the next two years, which it can use for the final mile, Buechel noted.

“The fiber ring isn’t going to go up and down the road,” he said. “That will be done by other providers. We will request proposals for other providers to do a portion of or the entire county.”

He added that applying providers will be required to submit a list of deliverables, such as a timeline, because the county wants every home to have access to high-speed internet as soon as possible.

“They’re going to want access to some of their federal money, and we’re willing to share it through grants, but it has got to be performance based,” Buechel said. “We’re not just going to write them a check.”

About 66% of rural Fond du Lac County residents who responded to a 2021 broadband assessment survey by Envision Greater Fond du Lac and the Fond du Lac County Broadband Task Force reported having unreliable internet, while 10% of county residents did not have internet.

Buechel said providing access to high-speed internet is important for attracting and retaining young people and businesses in Fond du Lac County.

“It’s all about our overall quality of life, based on how competitive our economy can be to attract businesses and workers,” he said. “We have to provide this one key element because it’s going to be here at some point in the future anyway. The quicker we can get it done, the more competitive we can be.”

Beyond creating a middle mile fiber ring, Bug Tussel hopes to build towers near Rosendale, Brandon, Fairwater, Lamartine, Waucousta and New Fane, but it doesn’t have specific sites selected as it is working to purchase property, Buechel noted.

He said each of those towers will be available to Fond du Lac County for emergency services communications.

The County Board will vote to approve the bond issuance at its Tuesday, Nov. 2 meeting, and the first phase of the project is anticipated to be completed by 2022, but other phases could take longer, Buechel added.

“It’s going to take probably three years I think overall,” he said.

Written By

Joe Schulz served as the reporter of the Green Laker in 2019 and 2020, before being hired as a reporter for the Commonwealth in October 2020. He is from Oshkosh and graduated from UW-Oshkosh in December with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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