BAYFIELD – The results are in: Bayfield residents see broadband as a necessary utility, and they want the town involved. For the town board, the question remains: in what way?
The Bayfield town board and staff discussed the pros and cons of different broadband setups at their work session this week. New survey results clarified the needs of the community, but next steps remain murky as the town moves through the early stages of assessing needs and planning for future broadband improvements.
The issue is speed and service for most survey respondents. HR Green, an engineering firm contracted by the town, surveyed Bayfield residents and businesses about their internet services.
“Before going into the study, there was the thought that Bayfield was not very well served. I think that’s true to an extent,” said Edward Barrett with HR Green. The firm found that 10 providers offer 11 different service options in Bayfield. “You have probably more providers than many similar communities,” he said.
After evaluating 113 completed surveys, HR Green found that 20% of respondents reported download speeds that met or rose above the Federal Communications Commission definition of broadband, 25 megabits per second. Service interruptions are also an issue: 56% of residents reported service outages occurring at least once a week.
The survey showed 83% of residents feel that the internet is an essential utility and 87% said it’s appropriate for the town to compete with the private sector.
Respondents used it for banking (96%), to meet educational needs (45%), to work remotely (42%), to run a home business (42%) and even to receive telehealth care (27%).
Exploring broadband isn’t just about competing with incumbent providers, Barrett said. “It’s really about providing changes in the community that will allow you to drive forward.”
Now, as the town and HR Green wrap up the first stage of the planning process, their next step is to decide what the town’s involvement might look like – and it’s a pretty complicated decision to make.
For example, should the town make sure every house gets fiber-optic broadband, even if it means raising the cost for everyone to send cables out to those last few houses on the edge of the service area?
At the work session, HR Green helped the board and staff members map out exactly where they stood on some of these complicated issues. For residents, the results are an early indicator of where the town could be headed.
When it came to building infrastructure to reach everyone instead of prioritizing cash flow even if some residents weren’t served, the board leaned toward reaching everyone, while emphasizing the need to balance the cash flow.
“I don’t want to take a loss, but I do want to try to get it to as many customers as we can,” said Brenna Morlan, a town board member. “You have to try to give as much as you can because that helps the growth.”
Mayor Matt Salka said he’d love to get service to everyone, but the town would have to get money coming in on the system. Board member Ashleigh Tarkington said people understand that reaching the outskirts might not be feasible given the nature of the town.
Then there’s affordability. The town could prioritize affordable broadband rates for the community, even if it means taking longer to have a return on its investment, which could be riskier. The board tended toward affordability, but members also agreed that they needed to avoid taking a loss if possible.
“If you’re going to use taxpayer money, we’re not going to sell it to anyone if we say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be $100 a month,” Salka said. “The only way we’ll sell it is through affordability.”
HR Green and the town have looked at what anchors are doing, what residents need, and how community anchors, such as libraries, schools and law enforcement, are feeling. Now, it’s time for Phase 2: studying cost, design, provider partnerships and more.