Wisconsin County Is Optimistic About Non-Subsidized Wireless

Published July 1, 2008

Racine County, Wisconsin is less than a year away from full countywide wireless coverage, according to its own estimates projecting implementation by April 2009.

The county has partnered with nationwide Internet service provider (ISP) eVergent Technologies and Milwaukee-based Midwest Fiber Networks.

Racine County is sparsely populated, which has historically led to a lack of interest in the development of outlying areas by the region’s two largest ISPs, AT&T and Time Warner Cable.

Not Subsidized

Once hailed as a promising infrastructure investment, municipal wireless projects have suffered a spate of bad news in recent months, as multiple systems in municipalities around the country have collapsed or needed taxpayer-funded rescue.

Though taxpayer dollars were spent on the feasibility study and on county government infrastructure, the Racine model differs from others across the United States in one important way: The county does not plan to provide taxpayer-subsidized Internet service to households or “digital nomads.”

“This is not a subsidy,” said Racine County broadband project manager Rob Richardson. Service will be provided to customers by eVergent at rates that will turn a profit for that company.

Richardson said he believes Racine County’s model is structured for success. “The reality is that it is very hard for any county or municipality to cater to the twenty-first century way of doing business without having some sort of fixed broadband infrastructure in place,” Richardson said.

“Businesses from large to small, if they want to compete in the twenty-first century business environment, have to have high speed, broadband access,” Richardson continued. “With this wireless coverage project we are bringing them that in Racine County.”

Racine officials are quick to point to what they identify as free-market aspects of the project. An outside agency was hired to study Racine’s wireless needs and recommend a list of all U.S. companies with appropriate capabilities. Negotiations with prospective vendors ensued.

Analysts Note Corruption

While Racine County officials contend they merely helped competing companies “find the market,” Sonia Arrison of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, California says government involvement necessarily invites corruption.

“When governments limit market competitiveness down to one corporation, the kickbacks start,” Arrison said. “If any corporation is the only one in the process that can do the work, there are going to be kickbacks to the government. We’ve seen it happen in other cities–it is just what happens.”

So far the project has provided an estimated 550 new customers with wireless service and is now available in 65 percent of the county, including the city of Racine and the communities of Raymond, Caledonia, Sturdevant, Waterford, Burlington, and Mt. Pleasant.

Phillip Rolen ([email protected]) writes from Billings, Montana.