By Shereen Siewert

Marathon County supervisors this month reviewed a plan to expand and upgrade high speed internet, after an analysis revealed that large portions of the county have either limited or no internet availability.

Engineering firm Design Nine, of Virginia, developed the plan, which calls for building at least 32 new towers to reach 89 percent of homes county-wide. The towers are expected to cost between $118,000 and $184,000 each. An additional 10 towers would be required to reach 100 percent of Marathon County homes.

The six-phase plan is expected to take up to 10 years to implement, according to a presentation last week by Design Nine’s Jack Maytum.

Partial funding for the broadband program through state and federal grant programs is possible, but Maytum said such funding would not be sufficient for the long-term plan. However, Maytum pointed out that the infrastructure would pay for itself through potential revenue sources such as leasing the infrastructure to outside companies. Providing the service itself would fall to internet service providers, also a possible revenue stream for the county.

“You make your money back over a number of years,” Maytum said.

Design Nine’s report cautions that Marathon County will continue to fall behind other areas of Wisconsin and the Midwest without a strategic plan to develop modern broadband infrastructure.

“This plan is really a first step in showing you’re serious about doing something about the broadband problem in Marathon County,” Maytum said, adding that broadband expansion is an economic development issue.

Academic studies have found that broadband access leads to more new businesses in rural areas, and that high levels of broadband adoption are associated with increased median household incomes and lower unemployment levels for rural residents. Experts say some of the key gains from rural broadband would be in the areas of modern healthcare and education, economic and workforce development, farm income, and consumer savings.

County officials will now work to find a path forward that incorporates Design Nine’s recommendations.