Saturday, April 18, 2020

Broadband Internet Accessibility Expansion in Kewaunee County

As a former Kewaunee County Board of Supervisors Chairman, I feel obligated to speak out when it appears the County is making bad decisions.  This is one of those times.

My preface to this article:  
There is one thing I want you to take away from this article.  That is, providers like Bertram, Mercury.net, and Door County Broadband are “LINE OF SIGHT” PROVIDERS.  IF YOU DO NOT HAVE LINE OF SIGHT TO A TOWER, YOU CANNOT ACCESS THE TOWER.  Keep this in mind as you are reading about the County’s plan later.

I fully understand there are “underserved pockets” of residents in Kewaunee County who have difficulty accessing reasonably priced broadband.  My research shows that several companies have blanketed the entire county with broadband signal with typical download speeds of 20 Mps and 6 Mps upload.  Kewaunee County does not have a broadband access problem, we have homes in the woods and homes in valleys which I refer to as an “underserved pockets” problem. 

I was one of those homes, located in the woods South and West of Kewaunee.  I ran a business from my home and had to have fast enough internet service to run teleconference meetings and handle large data dumps.  I was buying service from Verizon, and it was pricey, about $300 a month on average.  I was not able to take advantage of some of the more competitively priced packages for broadband as offered by Bertram, Mercury.net, or Door County Broadband. 

You might ask, why could I get service from Verizon?  Well, good question.  The major telecom like Verizon, U.S. Cellular, AT&T, have paid the FCC billions of dollars for licensing broadcast bands that are lower frequency that can penetrate through walls and trees, etc.  Companies like Mercury, Bertram and Door County Broadband through licensing from FCC broadcast at higher frequency rates, typically operate at 5.1 GHz to 5.8 GHz that do not afford the same penetration.

I actually had the Bertram and Mercury people (whose towers I could see from my house) come to my home to run accessibility and speed readings only to be told, “if you cut those trees down over there, we can service you.”  Well that wasn’t an option.  The trees were one of the primary reasons I built here.  So, I walked the Mercury.net representative about 100 yards to the Southwest of the house and said, what if we put a post here?  From that location we had direct “LINE OF SIGHT” to their tower.  He pulled out his meter and said, this will be great, as he was getting about 55 Mps of signal at that point. 

I took it upon myself to erect a 22-foot cedar pole and ran underground electric power to it.  Mercury came in and put a receiver (to access the tower) and transmitter on top the pole.  The transmitter was to move the signal from that pole to the house.  I had “LINE OF SIGHT” service from that pole to the corner of my house, and voila I had great internet service to my house at consistent speeds of 20 plus Mps download and an average of 12 Mps upload.  Problem solved!  And, I am now paying $100 a month for up to 500 GB per month.

My Experience with Government - When They Take Charge of Anything, they foul it Up!

The most terrifying words in the English language as so well stated by President Ronald Reagan are: “I'm from the government and I'm here to help.”

Well, I am now terrified, because I believe that what we have going on right here in Kewaunee County is the beginning of a mis-guided, wasteful, taxpayer funded, broadband expansion program.  We taxpayers may be able to change the misguided direction of this project if we speak up now! This is a very complex topic to explain, but I will do my best to try to lay it out in a fashion that is understandable by all.   

Here are the major items completed so far on the Kewaunee County Broadband Project   
1.      Broadband Committee (put together by the County Board) meets and discusses needs for Request for Proposal (RFP).
2.      RFP is drafted, approved and sent out to Vendors (click here to see the County's RFP).  Note: In the RFP, there is no mention of the real problem, that being the “underserved pockets.”
3.      Providers submit proposals to Kewaunee County
4.      Presentations are scheduled
5.      Presentations are made by the respondents
6.      Broadband Committee recommends providers to partner on PSC grant application
7.      Executive Committee approves recommendation of Bug Tussel
8.      Bug Tussel and Kewaunee County partner on grant application submitted Dec. 16, 2019, (Click Here)
9.      PSC announces grant awards March 19, 2020 (awarded to Bug Tussel)

Why will the approach taken by Kewaunee County fail to produce meaningful results?

In a recent news article reported in the Kewaunee County Star News, you read that “Kewaunee County was awarded $960,000 by the Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin to increase its high-speed internet access.”

Perhaps you recall when you received your tax bill this year, the County put a letter with your bill requesting public input/comments in support of expanding broadband.  A realistic and cost-effective way to survey the general public.  Some 88 people took time to write a letter or an email indicating they wanted faster service and many wanted a lower price for that service.  Surprise, surprise, surprise!  In addition to the letters, other people called Administrator Feldt and expressed the same thoughts.  All in, 150 people .0075% of the population responded and were concerned enough to send in a letter, email or make a phone call.  In my opinion, not a resounding endorsement for support.  Perhaps it was because the issue was not causing a panic or concern in the general population. (Note, I underlined email because, for all intent and purpose, takes very little effort on anyone’s part to complete).  (Click here to see all Resident input)

Here is where the mistake occurred.  The County is blanketed in coverage from several vendors.  Access is not the problem, but reaching the “underserved pockets” is the problem.   Remember the LINE OF SIGHT issue!  What the County should have done is to have completed a door-to-door canvass to determine, first hand, what was causing certain people to say “I have terrible internet service.”  Had that been done, the approach to the alleged problem, I guarantee you, would be totally different.  (Read my Sep 26, 2019 article about this topic).

The County then used those public comments as support information in the PCS grant request.  Quite a simple process, and the PSC came back with a grant of $960,000 to the County.  Don’t get me wrong, a lot of work went into this project, but when you start with bad assumptions you end up with the incorrect solution.

So now the County has $960,000 grant money from the PSC. Now how to spend it, along with a matching $960,000 from the County.   First let’s understand the $960,000 from PSC.  IT IS TAXPAYER MONEY!  And, the Kewaunee County $960,000, what are those funds?  TAXPAYER DOLLARS!  So, we now have $1,920,000 of TAXPAYER MONEY to spend.  Let’s find the best solution to expand our broadband access!

The County Broadband Committee then solicited four companies to come to a meeting and present their company’s structure and capabilities and listen to a pitch as to how they would improve the broadband in the County.  Those companies were; Door County Broadband, Bertram, Bug Tussel and Mercury.  Of the four companies, three have been working in Kewaunee County and providing service for a long time, those being Door County Broadband, Mercury and Bertram.  Bug Tussel, on the other hand, did not have a presence in Kewaunee County. 

Apparently, when the date for these interviews was set, Mercury.net had a conflict and could not be in attendance.  Administrator Feldt had discussion with Mercury saying the committee didn’t have time for the fourth presenter and would reschedule Mercury’s presentation for another date.  Well, that never happened as the Committee was so baffled and snowed by the Bug Tussel presentation they had bought into lock, stock and barrel.  Mercury never was given the chance to present.  I bring this up only because it seems that today, Mercury has the widest coverage in the County and understands the “underserved pockets” issue better than anybody.  BTW, I have no dog in this fight, but it seems to me there should be some loyalty to companies that have been serving the County residents.  (See vendorProposals here).

It was during these presentations the committee missed something of great importance, and in fairness, probably didn’t recognize it.  Bug Tussel’s core business is building Cell Phone Towers.  They have a standing contract with AT&T to build out those towers and equip with cell switching equipment.

So here is how that works.  AT&T gets funding from the FCC (taxpayer money) to build a network of Cell phone towers for handling the switching of cell phone calls.  That has nothing to do with broadband service.  Bug Tussel builds and provisions these towers to AT&T specifications.  So, then, upon the existing AT&T provisioned towers, Bug Tussel simply affixes Cambium Broadband equipment and thus provides a broadband LINE OF SIGHT signal is established.  So, they double dip with the government funding.  They already are getting paid through AT&T’s taxpayer funded program, then they have a county like Kewaunee, pay for the towers again.  What a wonderful fail-safe business model.  It works well for Bug Tussel as the $1.9 Million from Kewaunee County for this project is money that largely falls to the bottom line for Bug Tussel, but does this work for our County? 

Here is the rub.  On paper Bug Tussel appears to be financially solid.  However, the actual towers appear to be owned by Midwest DataCore LLC an entity owned by Bug Tussel.  Then Bug Tussel broadband leases space on those towers to place the Cambium Broadband equipment.  So that relegates broadband to being the secondary business. 

There is good reason to believe that Bug Tussel could, after they consummate the sale of their towers with AT&T, simply fold their tent and shut down the broadband offering.  BUG TUSSEL MAKES THEIR MONEY BY BUILDING CELL PHONE TOWERS FOR AT&T AND FOR THE CELL PHONE CALL SWITCHING RUNNING THROUGH THEIR SWITCHING EQUIPMENT ON THOSE TOWERS.  A really good example of this is, Bug Tussel already has AT&T equipment on the Kohnle Grain elevator in Tisch Mills, and, if you look at their proposal, they represent having to build a tower in Tisch Mills.  Is this tower one in the same as they are proposing to build?  Something seems fishy here!

Also, according to the Bug Tussel response to the RFP, their expansion will service 199 businesses and 12,115 residential locations within its total footprint, as antennas will also reach Mishicot in Manitowoc County.  And why is Manitowoc County included?

REALLY?
  With that statement, they are implying that virtually no one in the county has broadband today.  That, is not the case.  Looking at census data, about 11,500 of Kewaunee County residents live in the cities of Algoma, Luxemburg, Kewaunee and Casco who already have good broadband.  That means there are about 9,000 people living in rural areas.  From everything I researched there is about 20% of the population that don’t use the internet at all. So, if that is true, the 9,000 now becomes 7,200 people to serve.  If you assume census numbers are correct, the average household is 2.3 people, so 7,200 divided by 2.3 people equals about 3,100 homes that potentially could be affected by adding Bug Tussel broadband.  NOW KEEP IN MIND THAT MEANS THAT NO ONE OUT THERE HAS ACCESS TODAY, AND WE KNOW THAT IS INCORRECT.  Here is a link that provides more information https://broadbandnow.com/Wisconsin/Kewaunee

Is it too late to stop this wasteful spending?  I don’t think so, because the actual contract between Bug Tussel and the County has not yet been signed.  Perhaps it is not too late to conduct meaningful, in-person door-to-door surveys to determine the real problem and redirect the money to fix the real problem and ensure any contract deals with the "under served" pockets.

Some other considerations

·       Broadband Technology is changing rapidly, in fact, about every 3 - 4 years all equipment needs to be changed or upgraded. This needs to be addressed.
·       Will Broadband distribution change so much in the next 2 - 5 years causing this entire project to be obsolete?
·       Who or what determines success or failure of this wasteful spend?
·       Will there be continuous reporting from the County to the taxpayers as to current results/failures going forward.
·       Going forward, assuming this imminent disaster is allowed, what is the County’s recourse for reclaiming wasted tax dollars?


The County is on a horribly misguided path with this plan and about to waste taxpayer dollars.  If the demand for service is really there, the private sector will provide the services.  What can you do personally to stop this --- Contact your County Board Supervisor, all their contact information is here.

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