Broadband for all?

(First published in the January 23, 2020 issue of City Pages)

Marathon County mulls $6 million infrastructure investment to cover the county with broadband internet access


Design Nine consultants presented a plan to cover 90% of the county with broadband internet coverage through fiber lines and 32 wireless towers.

A plan Marathon County commissioned to address the rural broadband shortage in the county comes with a little bit of good news, and a little bit of bad news.

A consultant says the plan could pay for itself, since it calls for the county to build, and then rent out the infrastructure. The bad news? The county will first have to pay for that infrastructure to the tune of nearly $6 million.

Jack Maytum of Design Nine, the firm hired to develop the plan, summarized the report last week Thursday to the Marathon County Board. The plan essentially involves installing 32 towers around the county at an estimated cost of $184,000 each, including a contingency for land purchases or leases. Not including laying down fiber, the cost of that infrastructure is nearly $5.9 million. That would cover roughly 90% of the homes and businesses in the county, Maytum says. Another ten towers would cover 100% of homes. Maytum didn’t offer a total estimated cost for the project that includes the fiber.

The towers could be rolled out in six phases, starting with the Stratford, Marathon, Edgar, Rib Mountain and Fenwood Creek area and ending with the northeast corner of the county.

That’s the infrastructure. The county could then lease out space on the towers and fiber to private broadband providers to install their own equipment, thus recovering the costs of the infrastructure through those lease payments. “Eventually this network will pay for itself,” Maytum told county leaders.

The county next must decide its role in developing broadband, says interim County Administrator Lance Leonhard. That is, whether the county should build the infrastructure, or incentivize the private sector to do so.