WASHINGTON, D.C. - It's hard to run a successful business without access to high speed broadband. That was the message that repeatedly surfaced as Senate Democrats discussed issues important to rural America during a rural summit on Sept. 13.
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin joined senators from Montana, Delaware. North Carolina, Minnesota, Michigan and other states, along with national leaders, to discuss issues important to rural America, with an emphasis on boosting economic opportunity.
Representing Wisconsin, Baldwin was joined by Wisconsin Farmers Union President Darin Von Ruden and James Wessing, president of Kondex Corporation in Lomira.
In describing the importance of rural communities, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) pointed out that about 60 million Americans live in rural areas, which is equivalent to 20 percent of the U. S. population. However, the other 80 percent of the nation's population relies on that 20 percent for their food, energy and "so much of what they need to survive day to day."
Giving the example of a doctor in a rural area who has to go to a McDonald's parking lot to see his x-rays, Klobuchar said, "That just isn't right."
Baldwin and Von Ruden gave more examples to illustrate the need for rural broadband.
Von Ruden, whose local telephone cooperative installed fiber optics providing broadband for his farm, said his sister and brother-in-law live seven miles away, but don't have broadband access. His brother-in-law, who has to send orders every day for his job couldn't get his orders in one Saturday morning after several hours of trying.
"There have been a lot of days he ends up getting up at 2:30 or 3 in the morning when nobody else is on the internet at that point in time, and then his order will go a lot faster," Von Ruden said.
Von Ruden pointed out that in Wisconsin it seems cooperative owned lines are getting broadband hookup, "but any time it's privately owned, we don't seem to be seeing that."
"It's really more of a hindrance for the rural economy, rural communities, to bring in new businesses and to grow Wisconsin," said Von Ruden. "Where we are at in society today, you really do need to have some kind of internet access in order to just be involved in business."
Additionally, the lack of broadband access limits farmers trying to work with the Department of Agriculture and farm programs, Von Ruden added.
Baldwin has been traveling the state specifically to hear about challenges rural communities face when there is no connection or the connection is so slow it become irrelevant.
"We know that high speed internet access is vital. It is a part of the 21st Century infrastructure," Baldwin explained. "It is not a luxury. It is a necessity."
A cheesemaker in Iowa County "had an award winning product but couldn't market it from his home," since his dial up service was insufficient.
Chocolatiers from Chicago relocated to Spooner with their award-winning product. They told her when they were in Chicago they looked at Chicago as their market. In Spooner, they look at the world as their market, "but that's not possible without the architecture and infrastructure of high speed broadband."
"And yet, if it's there, that dream of having an internationally recognized business in a small rural community is absolutely an option," said Baldwin.
In Eagle River, a survey showed that on average, summer tourists would stay two extra weeks if they had access to high speed broadband.
"Two extra weeks, multiplied by all those visitors, what a ripple effect that has on that rural economy," Baldwin pointed out.
In Green County, a local hospital that serves several counties has health information technology and medical records, but those without sufficient internet connection can't benefit from that advanced technology.
"Even making an appointment can be a challenge," added Baldwin.
She also pointed to the challenge of convincing young people to stay in rural areas underserved by broadband. Kids home from college "go batty because they have no ability to connect in ways they've become accustomed to doing during their college experience," not to mention the inability to keep up with assignments given over a break.
"It's something that will have an impact on the graying of our rural areas," said Baldwin.
Wessing started Kondex in 1974 on his great grandfather's farm in Lomira. The company, which manufactures farm equipment, employees 200 people.
With the farm equipment manufacturing industry supporting about 320,000 jobs nationwide, 98,000 in Wisconsin and generating more than $150 million last year, Wessing said, "Washington needs to have the equipment manufacturers back."
Along with a "robust farm bill that supports the American farmer," and a "good crop program in this farm bill," Wesing stressed the importance of protecting the renewable fuel standard and rebuilding America's infrastructure.
"Not only roads and bridges and our waterways, but we need high speed wireless broadband," said Wessing. "And I want to emphasize wireless broadband."
According to Wessing, most of the equipment produced for farmers today collect "all kinds of data" that is transmitted off the field as the farmer operates the equipment.
"We're really excited about some of the things we learned here," Klobuchar said in closing the summit. "It gives us fodder to go back to our colleagues, make the case, not just for the farm bill but for economic development."