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December 8, 2015    

On more than one occasion, companies looking to expand their business to the Lake Wissota Business Park near Chippewa Falls have elected to go elsewhere, and Charlie Walker said there was one large barrier in each case: A lack of broadband connectivity.

“It’s a very expensive cost for one company to bear,” he said Monday.

That is why Walker, president and CEO of the Chippewa County Economic Development Corporation, was pleased to hear that barrier is about to be eliminated.

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission announced it has approved 11 grants totaling $1.5 million to expand high-speed Internet access to thousands of rural residents and businesses, with the largest of those grants going to complete a system running through Chippewa Falls.

The $286,000 grant from the PSC is designated for the installation of 5.4 miles of fiber-optic cable to connect Riverside Industrial Park with Lake Wissota Business Park. Chippewa County officials applied for the grant, with the county and Wisconsin Independent Network LLC each contributing an additional $130,000 each toward the $546,165 project.

Wisconsin Independent Network is an Internet provider that boasts the largest independent network in Wisconsin. It is owned by a group of 31 independent telephone companies in the state. The company owns and operates more than 5,000 miles of fiber network, having expanded into Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Upper Michigan.

“It’s a great example of Chippewa County and the private sector and the WIN Network all coming together to put an infrastructure in rural Chippewa County that will allow for growth, especially in the private sector,” Walker said.

According to Chippewa County Administrator Frank Pascarella, this project will allow the Lake Wissota Business Park to be a state-certified “shovel-ready” park. All a business would have to do is hook up to the new fiber optic line.

“We’re eager to get the project going,” Pascarella said, explaining that broadband connections will be generally available sometime in 2017.

The grant is going to help more than just the county’s developing business park.

“It will provide sustainability in the established park,” Pascarella said, referring to the Riverside Industrial Park in Chippewa Falls.

Chippewa County and WIN will both maintain 50 percent ownership of the line. That means that the county will have access to the line for possible future expansion.

Businesses that connect to the fiber optic line still have the option of contracting with whatever internet service provider they wish.

“Who they use is their choice,” Pascarella said. “WIN will work with those providers.”

WIN also has a data center in Eau Claire, and data centers were among the businesses that fell through the county’s hands due to the lack of high-speed fiber availability in the business park. What Walker calls cloud-based businesses are among the fast-growing sectors that this grant is aiming to capture.

“Everything’s in the cloud now,” he said.

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“That’s important in economic development. The Twin Cities and western Wisconsin are emerging markets for data centers, and we are well positioned for recruiting a data center,” said Walker, who cited predictions for data centers growing by 34 percent next year. “We in Chippewa County do not want to to be left behind in that.”

Not only does the broadband expansion position the Chippewa Falls industrial parks for future growth with technology companies that rely heavily on the Internet, it will have another effect.

“It balances what we have — a fiber investment in the New Auburn and Bloomer areas and the western part of Chippewa Falls, the Lake Hallie area,” Walker said, “and is also going to be a stepping stone that will lead toward future infrastructure development along the central part of the county, positioning Jim Falls and Cornell.”

The Public Service Commission received 28 broadband expansion grant applications for 2016, totaling $4.4 million, and awarded roughly one-third of that amount.

This is the third year the PSC has awarded broadband grants. It approved $500,000 in grants to seven applicants in 2014, and awarded $452,579 to seven applicants in 2015.

Broadband providers say that without government funds, they couldn’t afford to extend high-speed Internet to rural areas because there aren’t enough customers to justify the expense.

The applications were evaluated by a four-member panel and final decisions were made by the PSC.

Several telecoms had opposed grant applications, saying expansions would overlap in areas where they provided broadband service. But in at least one case, the Public Service Commission said a telecom had left a community where it had previously offered the high-speed Internet.

To read the full story on The Chippewa Herald website click here

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