Rural broadband push to add 20 jobs, fast Internet to 82,000 in Wisconsin, Michigan

Nathan Phelps
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Packerland Broadband and Microsoft have partnered to bring rural broadband access to about 82,000 residents of Wisconsin and Michigan.

A plan by Microsoft and a rural internet provider to bring broadband access to more than 80,000 people in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula could spur jobs in the region.

A recently announced agreement between the Washington-based tech giant and Packerland Broadband of Iron Mountain, Michigan, is expected to provide expanded broadband service in the two states by 2022.

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The program will create about 20 jobs with Packerland for implementation of new equipment, but officials also see it as a way to spark expansion of digital education, business and jobs in the sparsely populated northern regions.

“We’ve got a vision of reviving the Northwoods of Wisconsin and making it a place people want to come back to rather than migrating away,” said Cory Heigl, Packerland’s vice president. “Every day it gets harder to survive up here when you have a lack of services. It’s about trying to bring back rural America.”  

  • Packerland Broadband plans to spend $2.7 million on the project the first two years, and could spend that amount, or more, over the remaining two, Heigl said. Work on the project is expected to start this spring or summer.
  • The program is part of a wider effort, named TechSpark, launched last fall by Microsoft in northern and eastern Wisconsin to expand broadband and foster additional technological and job growth in and around Green Bay and the Fox Cities. Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, is from Appleton.
  • The plan calls for Packerland to utilize unused TV frequencies (known as “white spaces”) and Wi-Fi hardware to connect with existing wireless and fiber coaxial cable systems.
  • Almost 34,000 people are expected to receive the service by the end of 2019, and about 82,000 by 2022, according to Microsoft.
  • Efforts here are part of a larger push to provide rural broadband to a greater swath of the nation as part of the Rural Airband Initiative, which also includes digital skills training for residents of newly connected communities.

“We’ll be partnering with folks like 4-H to help bring skills and digital training to those areas,” said Shelley McKinley, Microsoft’s general manager of technology and corporate responsibility. “The jobs of the future all have some digital aspect to them, whether you are a computer science engineer … or you want to run a small business, having digital skills is essential to your future and your opportunity.”

Brad Smith, president of Microsoft Corp., holds up an ACRS2 device by ADAPTRUM used in TV white space communications as he speaks at the Willard Hotel in Washington last July about Microsoft's project to bring broadband internet access to rural parts of the United States.

Wisconsin counties included in the plan are Marinette, Forest, Florence, Oconto, Langlade, Oneida, Marathon, Clark, Wood, Portage, Eau Claire, Ashland, Iron, Douglas, Juneau, Vernon, Dodge, Outagamie, Chippewa and Price.

Michigan counties in the plan are Dickinson, Iron, Menominee, Chippewa, Mackinac, Luce and Gogebic. 

Heigl said there could be further expansion of this type of service in the future.

Consumer prices are not yet set, but will likely be between $40 and $70 a month for broadband internet access, he said.