by CHRIS ROGERS
The promise of high-speed Internet has been a long time coming for Pickwick area residents. When HBC won a $561,000 state grant in 2015 to cover half the cost of extending fiberoptic Internet cables to Trout Creek Valley, Cedar Valley, and Whitewater State Park, the company expected the cables to be laid and the broadband internet flowing by 2017. HBC has completed work to bring broadband to those other areas, but it has yet to begin laying wires in Trout Creek Valley. CEO Dan Pecarina said that work should begin this summer.
The local projects were funded as part of a long-standing rural broadband expansion program at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). Often compared to 20th-century rural electrification, local and state officials say that broadband is crucial for young students to learn, for businesses to compete, and for ordinary residents to stay connected in rural communities. The state has poured millions of dollars into funding up to half the cost of extending high-speed internet — at least 100 megabits per second — to underserved areas where the current internet speeds are less than 10 megabits per second. Locally, HBC won $561,000 toward its two projects estimated to cost a combined $1,746,000. Winona County acted as a financial agent or “pass through” for the grant.
Remote and sparsely populated, it is very expensive to extend new fiberoptic cable to rural homes and businesses. “It is anywhere from four to 10 times what it costs to build out a network in town,” Pecarina said. With state grants covering half the cost, some rural projects make financial sense, but the most expensive rural projects are still a difficult business proposition with a long wait for return on investment, he stated.
Pickwick turned out such a project, Pecarina stated. HBC has plans to run fiberoptic cable along County Road 7 the length of the valley, but connecting the mouth of the valley to HBC’s larger distribution network on Highway 61 is the problem, he explained. HBC has existing fiberoptic cable just over a mile upriver, but there is a tight bend where Highway 61 is squeezed between a bluff, the railroad, and the river, where laying fiberoptic cable would require boring through rock, Pecarina explained. That is very expensive.
Once HBC realized how difficult connecting to the head of Trout Creek Valley would be, the company looked for alternatives. Pecarina said the company spent most of 2017 analyzing other options. HBC was also purchased by Indiana-based Schurz Communications that year. After looking at all the options, Pecarina said his firm has come up with a workable solution for Pickwick.
HBC plans to beam wireless Internet across the Mississippi River to Trout Creek Valley from two locations in Wisconsin: one downriver in Trempealeau and one upriver near the Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge. It is not ideal, Pecarina admitted. State officials and companies prefer fiberoptic cable because it has the capacity to provide even higher speeds in the future, but Pecarina said that the Pickwick project’s point-to-point wireless connection will still be able to provide the DEED-mandated broadband speeds. “They’re still going to get the speed an all-fiberoptic network would have … we just can’t build fiberoptic into the valley at a feasible price,” he stated. “We’ll have enough bandwidth pumped into the valley to serve everyone with one-gigabit service if they want to go to that.” In the future, HBC would like to extend fiberoptic cable from Ridgeway to the head of the valley, he added.
Rocky terrain posed a challenge in Cedar Valley and the Whitewater River Valley, too, but HBC was able to string fiberoptic cables on MiEnergy Cooperative electric poles in Cedar Valley. In Whitewater, the road bed contained enough fill material above the bedrock for HBC to bury its lines.
DEED and Winona County officials said that while the Pickwick project has taken longer than HBC hoped, it is coming along. Pecarina said he expects to get a permit for construction any day now and that once HBC receives the permit, it will start construction within 60 days. Pecarina said that HBC has until 2019 to finish the project, under the grant terms.