Grant County Considers Fiber-Optic Loop

Much to do with COBRA funding: a fiber loop under consideration

On Tuesday, April 13, the Grant County Executive Committee met to discuss matters related to the operation of the county.

Of note is the fact that the county is set to receive about $10 million from the COBRA omnibus spending bill. This windfall, according to the treasurer of the committee, needs to be spent by December 2024. Approved expenditures include the county’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, making up lost revenues, investing in broadband infrastructure and compensating essential workers.

As the committee sees this as non-recurring funding, some of the members have been considering spending almost $5 million on a fiber-optic loop that would connect cities within the county.

In the pre-planning stage at this point, the proposal was brought to the meeting by the head of the county’s Information Technology department, Shane Drinkwater. This improvement to county infrastructure, according to the proposal, would upgrade communications between emergency services within the county, which currently rely on line-of-sight between radio towers. In the Driftless Area, this isn’t always an option.

As a stopgap measure to these communication issues, the county considered renting towers from nearby counties. In the long run, this would have cost the county more money. It was decided that perhaps a fiber-based option would be better in regard to both functional communications and wider benefits to our rural communities.

This proposal, if approved, would include 96 to 144 fibers through one conduit with a second conduit laid beside it for usage in the future. These fiber-optic lines could be used for emergency communications, as well as broadband and cellular communication. The proposed fiber loop will start in Lancaster and constructed to reach to Platteville first, before moving on to Cuba City and other cities within the county.

One wider goal of this project is connecting to WISCNet, a state-owned service provider that provides internet to schools within the state. In turn, this would allow up to a 100-gigabit connection to the internet, provided first to entities such as police departments, fire departments, schools and companies. Broadband providers would also be able to access the fiber lines, though it sounds as though the committee’s primary focus is on emergency services.

This would solve a current issue with broadband fiber lines in the county, wherein providers use a “string-in-a-can” method, as Drinkwater described. By using a fiber line rather than a complete loop to bridge a connection, a severed fiber can bring down a communications network entirely.

Platteville faced a similar issue several months ago when a fiber line was severed in another city – taking down CenturyLink services for a couple of days. With everyone at home either working or in class, it made for a lot of frustration and lost productivity. With this proposed project, a sever in the fiber loop should likely lead to little to no downtime for those connected to it.

It was suggested the fiber loop would take approximately two years to complete if approved. With all of these details on the table, the executive committee unanimously agreed to the measure to be taken up with the County Board.