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Revisiting Reedsburg: LightSpeed's All-Gig Telecommuter Paradise - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 327
It’s been a while since we last visited with Reedsburg Utilities Commission General Manager Brett Schuppner. He’s back on the show again to help us spread the word about this Wisconsin town’s decision to switch all their muni network subscribers to affordable gigabit connectivity and to eliminate all other tiers.
Brett and Christopher get into why the RUC decided that going all-gig would benefit the community’s residents and businesses and how they decided that their role was to provide the service and let the community run with it. RUC has been offering high-quality connectivity for about 15 years, making it one of the oldest publicly owned networks in the U.S.
When Brett was on the show in 2015, he and Christopher talked about the RUC’s plans to expand. "Deja vu" as the same topic comes up again on this week’s episode. The RUC has been awarded funding to help pay for expansion to two nearby communities that need Internet access for the 21st century. Brett shares information about those communities and the logistics behind the projects.
Located about an hour from Madison, RUC’s affordable LightSpeed provides the connections that area Wisconsinites need to telecommute. Brett and Christopher also touch on Reedsburg’s recent designation as a certified Telecommute Forward! community. The certification lets companies know that the city and areas served by LightSpeed have the capacity to support remote employees.
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Brett Schuppner: We just decided to remove the bandwidth restrictions and let those customers fully utilize their connected devices and have a better online experience. We didn't feel the Internet provider should limit the customer in that factor.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 327 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. There's a certain elegance that comes with simplicity, and in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, subscribers to the city's LightSpeed Internet access are finding that out firsthand. This past spring, the Reedsburg Utility Commission decided to eliminate all but the gigabit tier, which is super affordable to subscribers. Brett Schuppner from the utility commission has been on the show before to discuss their expansion efforts, and once again, he talks about how the commission will bring LightSpeed to more premises beyond the city limits. Brett also talks about their decision to go all gig, the response from subscribers, and how the network is influencing the business community. In addition to sharing some of the history behind LightSpeed, Brett and Christopher discuss the role of the network in the community's vibrant telecommuting population and their newly acquired certification as a Telecommuter Forward! community. If you’re a regular Community Broadband Bits listener, you might notice that we’ve made some minor changes to the way we publish the podcast. These changes shouldn’t affect your ability to access the podcast, but if you encounter any problems, please let us know. Send a note to email@example.com. Now, here's Christopher with Brett Schuppner from Reedsburg Utilities Commission.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Bommunity Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, talking to Brett Schuppner, the general manager of Reedsburg Utility Commission. Welcome to the show.
Brett Schuppner: Well, thank you
Christopher Mitchell: Brett, there's a brief hesitation if you're listening closely because I was going to say something about an over-the-border rival or something like that, what would this being fall sports season — football, hockey is going to be starting soon. I'm sure you're on the Wisconsin camp. I'm in the Minnesota camp. But then I decided not to and then I decided to do it anyway.
Brett Schuppner: Yeah. Isn't this weekend the battle for Paul Bunyan's axe for the football teams?
Christopher Mitchell: I don't think so. No, I think we're playing Iowa this week. I think you have one of your other games that may not present as much of a challenge.
Brett Schuppner: Okay.
Christopher Mitchell: Brett, you're not too far away from Madison in Wisconsin. Why don't you tell us a little bit more about Reedsburg?
Brett Schuppner: Yup. Reedsburgs is just under a hour from Madison to kinda the northwest. A Lot of people might be more familiar with Wisconsin Dells as a popular tourist area, and we're just like 15 miles from Wisconsin Dells area. Reedsburg is located in Sauk County, with a population of just under 10,000 residents
Christopher Mitchell: And your network — we're going to get to this toward the end of the show — but your network's a lot closer to the Dells, or it will be very soon. So that's exciting news. But the thing that I really wanted to talk about was something you've done, which I know some other folks have thought about in the municipal broadband spac, but haven't done. You're all gig now. Your standard rate, if someone signs up for Internet access, they're going to get a gig to the Internet. Tell us about that.
Brett Schuppner: You're 100 percent correct. Reedsburg Utility is the electric and water utility for the city of Reedsburg. And then in the early 1990s, the city decided they wanted to take matters into their own hands regarding the telecommunication needs of the city. So in January of 2000, Reedsburg became the first municipality to obtain a certification as an alternate telecommunications utility in Wisconsin. We started providing services on our 100 percent fiber network by 2002. In 2011, then we actually started expanding outside the city limits, and we cover probably getting close to 25 to 30 percent of rural Sauk County now with our fiber deployment, and like you mentioned earlier, which gets us up to the Wisconsin Dells area and some other neighboring communities. In 2014, we became the first gigabit provider in the state of Wisconsin. And then this year, we decided to actually dust off an old brand that we had when we started back in the early 2000s called LightSpeed. So we dusted off that logo and rebranded ourselves as LightSpeed Internet. And, that's when we rolled out our unthrottled access to our gigabit fiber network and started providing gig service as our standard and only residential Internet option. Basically, we're the only provider in the state that is doing that, and from what I understand, one of only maybe three in the nation that are doing that. Our residential customers, especially if they're bundling it with TV or phone service can get that for as low as $45 a month — gig service.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I think the only other places that I know of that are doing it were in the Bay Area, the private company Sonic, which we've talked to folks from there before. They're very forward thinking, and in Vermont, I believe VTel was doing that in an area in which they received a substantial federal grant for Fiber-to-the-Home. But yeah, I'm not aware of anyone else that I can think of that's been so bold. Is this something that you were concerned about? I mean, you certainly have been in the fiber game for longer than almost anyone else, so you have more than enough background in data to have a sense of what your costs are. But you know, just walk me through the decision making process to make that switch.
Brett Schuppner: You know, we are 100 percent fiber, so we don't really have a limitation on our network, like some of the people that are converting from an old copper plant to a fiber plant. So this was something that really didn't cost us more to do. And I guess, we just felt like, you know, we want to be a leader in this field, so let's be the leader. Let's say, you know, bring it out. Let's throw the gloves off, and let's deliver gig. We're seeing even increased demands in households with their multiple Internet enabled devices. You know, they're doing more video streaming, more gaming, telemedicine, online education. Telecommuting is becoming a bigger thing we're seeing around here. I guess we just decided to remove the bandwidth restrictions and let those customers fully utilize their connected devices and have a better online experience. We didn't feel the Internet provider should limit the customer in that factor.
Christopher Mitchell: How long have you been doing this?
Brett Schuppner: Uh, we rolled this out in May of 2018.
Christopher Mitchell: So in the time you've been offering this gig connection as a standard, are you seeing a greater demand on your wholesale? Do you have to increase your transit at all, or have you had to upgrade any routers?
Brett Schuppner: Our standard speed before rolling out the gig standard was 100 meg service, so I don't think the Gig service has really changed customers' behaviors in regards of downloading more data. It's just that they can utilize and see the benefit of the speed [on] all their devices at one time. So we really haven't seen our wholesale bandwidth increase drastically other than just by adding customers and that. So, I think if we were starting out at a much lower speed where, by giving customers more speed, it changed their habits, then you would see a peak or a change in the wholesale connections. You know, what we have been seeing though, is actually customers are now buying devices capable of handling higher speeds. We've seen it a quite a few times since May, where customers are buying computers now that can actually see a gig. So it's interesting when our installers go to a house and it's like, the customer might say, "I want to see this gig," and then they do a speed test and they're actually seeing it. They're seeing 900, upper 900s, 950s and stuff like that for their speed test. So, you know, typically on one device, a standard device, you're not going to see that, but it is actually changing customers' behaviors, that if it's available they will adapt and use it.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, one of the things that I've heard from gigabit providers is that even your higher end wireless access points, your routers, your home routers have often only had a 100 Megabit port on the WAN side, the wide area network side. And so people are sometimes surprised that, you know, they might be getting a high capacity connection, but they have to buy a new router to take advantage of it.
Brett Schuppner: Right, and we provide the router. We want to control that experience. We want to control that device, so that we can make sure we're delivering the service, I guess, so that that WiFi connection is capable of getting a gig out there. So we provide actually two wireless access points as a standard delivery so that we can provide good coverage through the house and the customers can utilize that service
Christopher Mitchell: I'll bet that's popular. You had mentioned earlier telecommuting and you are the fourth recognized Telecommuter Forward! city in Wisconsin. What's that all about?
Brett Schuppner: Earlier this year, the Wisconsin legislature passed a Telecommuter Forward! Community certification for communities to promote that there's Internet service available in that community for businesses and residents to have telecommuting opportunities. And Senator Marklein, which is the senator for our district, District 17 in Wisconsin, was actually one of the cosponsors. And then actually our state representative, Ed Brooks, was also a sponsor of that legislation. When that came out, they said Reedsburg is the prime example of, you know, why this certification was passed.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, I can only imagine the advantage that people have working from Reedsburg relative to the average community in a smaller town in Wisconsin. I mean, are you seeing an influx of people that are trying to take advantage of that?
Brett Schuppner: We do see people that maybe one spouse lives in Madison — or works in Madison, sorry, and so then the other spouse might work somewhere else or work in Reedsburg. So if they're in this area, those working in Madison might have an opportunity to actually work a few days from home. We do regularly get calls from customers, people even outside our service area, wondering if they can get Reedsburg Utility LightSpeed Internet for the telecommuting opportunities.
Christopher Mitchell: So one of the other things that's just come up is the State of Wisconsin is putting about $7 million into expanded high quality Internet access, and it looks like you received grants to expand in the nearby town of Spring Green and the area around there for a $300,000 and $137,000 in a town called Delton. That seems like a pretty big deal. I mean, I guess you probably have ambitions ultimately to serve all of Sauk County, but I have to say I'm just thrilled to see the State of Wisconsin putting money into these smart local projects rather than, you know, big DSL projects.
Brett Schuppner: Like you said, the state does have a broadband grant program, and actually [these] last two rounds have been over $7 million of grants available. We actually applied. We had three different applications that we put in. There was, I think, a total of 83 applications [that] were submitted. We had the number four ranked and the number seven ranked application, so both of those were funded. One of them is just outside the Wisconsin Dells - Lake Delton area for some rural subdivision that basically customers can't get over three Megabits per second downloads. I got an example here of one resident that lives in this rural subdivision [who] said, "Our current Internet provider has a maximum speed of about 2.6 Megabits per second with an upload of 0.1 Megabits per second. Our family has limited access to online educational resources. That leaves our children struggling to keep up with their peers." This resident lives less than a half a mile from the village limits of Lake Delton, so it's just, how close they can be but not have such limited access is a kind of odd. Or you know, it just seems like that wouldn't be the case, I guess is what I'm saying. So we applied for a grant for this subdivision and we did get it, so now we'll be able to bring our gigabit fiber network to these residents and their neighbors, which will definitely change their lives of what they can do from their home.
Christopher Mitchell: Are you seeing any increased thought about the towns or townships or others trying to figure out how to supplement the state program or do something just out of recognition that if they wait for the state to fund their area, they might be waiting too long?
Brett Schuppner: Yes, definitely. Actually the grant that we got for the Town of Spring Green is a perfect example of that. We've been working with the Town of Spring Green over the last couple years. They've reached out to us numerous times trying to see if there's ways we could bring our service down to them. So we were working through the broadband grant process to try to get some additional funding to do this, to make this cost effective for everyone involved. With us being a municipally owned telco, it isn't fair for the residents of Reedsburg to have to take on financing to fund a project that's not in their — basically, in their taxing district. So the Town of Spring Green and Reedsburg Utility, we've partnered. And what we're going to do with this project that was awarded this grant is actually the Town of Spring Green is going to own the fiber, the buried fiber and ducts so basically the fiber plant, and then we're going to it from them and provide the service. So then that way, they're getting the funding, or the financing, to put the buried plant in the ground. We're going to be basically lighting it up and providing the service, and through the leasing of their fibers, then that's how they're going to be able to pay for their investment in their infrastructure that they're going to own.
Christopher Mitchell: That's great to hear. I mean, that's a really replicable model. Yeah, that's the sort of thing that I could see happening in a number of places where — and in this case, we're taking advantage of a state program, but, but if you're willing to do that and the local governments are willing to own that and to work with you on it, that seems like a win-win-win.
Brett Schuppner: Yeah. In this Town of Spring Green project that we're gonna be doing, you know, we're anticipating this is the first phase, and you mentioned it earlier, that maybe our goal is to provide fiber service throughout Sauk County. And we've actually had discussions with representatives from Sauk County and that is something they're interested in too. So this is probably kind of a like a test project, you know, to see how this works — a demo — and kind of see how this could be replicated throughout other townships.
Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I don't know if you're paying attention in Minnesota, but to brag a little bit, a lot of the Minnesota counties have been working on — working with rural telephone cooperatives, who are doing a great job of expanding this access. And so, you know, certainly you would expect to see that in Wisconsin as well since the states are pretty similar.
Brett Schuppner: Yeah. And I think we're seeing a little bit of that, even through the broadband grant . Like I said, there was 83 applications and that some of them were local providers — other local providers working with counties to expand broadband further into rural areas.
Christopher Mitchell: So when we talked previously, you had mentioned that there were certainly a number of local businesses in Reedsburg that have really benefited from the fiber network that you've been providing. I'm curious if you have any other, maybe more recent, anecdotes of how the network is benefiting the community.
Brett Schuppner: Recently, our city administrator was commenting on when potential site locators for new businesses, new industries call Reedsburg to see what we have to offer. He says the top three things that they ask about are safety, schools, and Internet. So as Reedsburg's concerned, I think we nail all three of them very highly. It's something that the industries are looking for. We do have most of our, or I'd like to say all of our industries right now are just booming. They can't find enough employees. So they're looking for other opportunities, like the telecommuting where, you know, they can get into another workforce and have people work from home. Actually, one business I can think of, they just recently bought a plant somewhere in the southern U.S., and we actually, through a private connection, we deliver Internet all the way to their plant down in Tennessee. So to have their — that's our farthest Internet customer we have right now. So yeah, but that's through a private connection that we contracted with another provider to get down to there. So Internet is something that's a priority to some of these businesses and industries.
Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I thought was interesting about a recent press release you sent out was that Bill Esbeck from the Wisconsin... I don't know. It's the WTSA. I forget exactly what it stands for, but it's the private telephone companies and often the co-ops I think. He was there speaking, and I'm curious because he had been an opponent of municipal broadband in the past. Is your project — is it less controversial now? Are people more comfortable with what you're doing?
Brett Schuppner: I guess we do partner with a lot of WSTA members around us. You know, as that organization, I can't speak for them specifically. The real reason he was here was for, you know, basically the press event with the local legislature. So, it was cordial, but I don't know if their stance has really changed on that or not, as an organization. But as individual members, you know, I truly feel that we all are in it to serve our customers. Especially when you look at the cooperatives and the local ILECs and that. So, I think we have a common goal there, and we'll maybe set aside some political differences to serve the customer.
Christopher Mitchell: I think that's a good sentiment that we want to make sure people hear, is this is about ultimately making sure people have good Internet access. So that's a good reminder. Well, thank you Brett for coming on, reminding us that you've been there, doing this great work in Reedsburg. And I'm curious to see if you inspire other communities to also have gigabit as their standard option so that it's a — well frankly, it'll be easier for people to understand without all the tiers and things like that, but also just giving such a great experience. So thanks for being willing to experiment with that and telling us about it.
Brett Schuppner: You know, from what we've seen from our customers that actually we've been adding and stuff like that, it's definitely something people are interested in. We've been busy since we've rolled that out.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, that's actually really interesting. I mean, you already had a quite a large market share, so you're seeing that that has attracted new interest then.
Brett Schuppner: Yeah, before we rolled that out, I'd say compared to our normal new customers versus our churn — I'd say we've probably tripled in adding new customers every month since gig standard was rolled out.
Christopher Mitchell: Wow. Well, terrific. Thank you again.
Brett Schuppner: No problem. Well, I appreciate the opportunity to discuss this with you.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Brett Schuppner, General Manager of Reedsburg Utilities Commission in Wisconsin. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at Podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening to episode 327 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.