UW-Madison students explore residential value of a municipal WiFi plan

Under the direction of Professor Anne Reynolds and City of Monona’s Community Media Director, Will Nimmow, students researched the benefits of municipal broadband internet and the ways the city could implement it

Author

Devin R. Larsen

Contributors

Shelly Strom, Marshall Curry

Metrics

Community
City of Monona, WI, United States
Community Size
8,045 (2018 Census Estimation)
University
University of Wisconsin - Madison
Program
UniverCity Year
Years
2016/2017
Status
Completed
Case Type
Project Stories
Region
EPA Region 5, USA

Under the direction of Professor Anne Reynolds and City of Monona’s Community Media Director, Will Nimmow, students researched the benefits of municipal broadband internet and the ways the city could implement it.

Internet access is often required to access facets of everyday life, including purposes related to work, communication, media access, and more. As corporations and vested interests have recently sought to monopolize Internet access into a for-profit, privatized system of few, hundreds of municipal entities have begun providing access to its residents and businesses to improve social and economic circumstances surrounding Internet availability (Institute for Local Self-Reliance).

The City of Monona is a small community just east of Madison, Wisconsin, with over 8,000 residents (2018 Census estimation). In recent years, the city has looked to redevelop the municipality for the modern age. One avenue they considered was providing municipal, cooperative Internet access as a public good to benefit the entire community—residents and businesses—while driving economic growth.

To assist in this important decision, City of Monona staff partner with University of Wisconsin-Madison

The UniverCity Year program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an EPIC-Network member, was created to help local government and community partners with identified sustainability and livability projects. Participating university faculty incorporate community-identified projects into classes, and provide students with on-the-ground experience in support of a more sustainable and livable future for the partnered community. 

During the 2016 to 2017 academic year, the City of Monona was chosen to partner with the UniverCity Year program due to its proximity to the university and for strong support from Mayor Bob Miller. 

The UniverCity Year program partnered UW-Madison’s Agricultural & Applied Economics (AAE) 323: Cooperatives undergraduate course with the City of Monona to help identify how municipalities and cooperatives could provide customers with alternatives to private Internet services.

In collaboration with Professor Anne Reynolds and City of Monoa’s Community Media Director, Will Nimmow, students researched numerous approaches whose results could help guide the city towards their considerations on municipal broadband. These projects included:

  • Reviewing both national and local policies and regulations which could limit the city’s considerations
  • Researching two case studies on municipal Wifi systems in Minnesota—Minneapolis, MN, and rural—to examine approaches in comparable places
  • Investigating several successful municipal attempts which offered Internet access to communities within Wisconsin
  • Running two focus groups and an online survey with Monona citizens and businesses to identify Internet needs and community interest in the development of cooperatively-run services 

Students clarify value of municipal and cooperative internet 

Students produced numerous recommendations which were  overseen by UW-Madison staff and Monona officials. Considerable student findings included some of the following: 

Understanding the cost of a municipal WiFi program

  • Monona may find popular interest for municipal WiFi, but they should conduct further cost-benefit analyses to determine whether it is the most efficient use of their funding
  • While expensive, the city should consider installing fiber optic cable if municipal WiFi is implemented, as it is provides “optimal reliability, quality, and customer satisfaction” (Insights into Municipal and Cooperative Internet Final Guide)

Monona should consider joining forces with another city

  • The city could consider joining a larger, second-order cooperative to successfully move this project forward, prior to developing their own municipal run WiFi
  • If Monona would not like to bear the complete burden of fiber optic cable alone, they should consider cooperating with the City of Madison, whose current considerations of fiber optic expansion could be extended to include Monona

Research conducted by UW-Madison’s AAE323 students identified that the City of Monona is not the first municipality nationally or regionally to pursue this kind of project. Monona officials can rely on similar municipal projects to identify advice and caution relative to their plans. Involved students and staff hope that this information, along with that provided by local surveys and focus groups, will help inform the city’s direction toward providing municipally-supported broadband Internet to its community. 

Read the full story of the partnership.

Read the final student report delivered to the local/community partner.