Rural Wisconsin counties push for faster internet
"You could click on a website, go make a sandwich, and when you came back there might be a full screen of something to look at," said Jay McCloskey,insurance executive, on the internet speed at his Crawford County home, which he was using as his office
A northern Wisconsin county, known for its 1,300 lakes, has a plan for blanketing the area with internet coverage — something that state officials say could become a template for other rural counties stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The Vilas County Economic Development Corp. worked with Frontier Communications and other internet providers to create the plan aimed at making broadband, generally defined as high-speed internet service, available to more than 90 percent of the county within three years.
The area's population swells in the summer as people from Illinois, Minnesota and elsewhere in Wisconsin go there for vacation. Vilas County, which includes the town of Eagle River, also has some winter tourism.
Some of those guests don't stay long, however, because not having adequate internet access leaves them feeling too disconnected from their work and the rest of the world.
Also, businesses and year-round residents would benefit from improved internet service.
Currently, much of the service is based on older copper wire technology. It's slow and inadequate, said Carl Ruedebusch, chairman of the Vilas County Economic Development Corp.
To address the issue, Ruedebusch organized the stakeholders seeking improved broadband — including schools, businesses, state and local government — and together they made a pitch to Frontier Communications.
There was strength in numbers, as no one on their own would have had the same impact, said David Cagigal, chief information officer for the state of Wisconsin.
"Frontier showed us their broadband rollout plans, year by year ... which they had not done before," he said.
The Vilas County approach could be a template for other counties where internet access is lacking, according to Cagigal, who was part of the discussions with Frontier.
The "tipping point" of the talks was grant money available for broadband expansion.
Wisconsin is second only to California in the dollar amount allocated to states from the Connect America Fund II program administered by the Federal Communications Commission through 2020.
Frontier will get $186 million, or $31 million per year, for bringing broadband service to 76,000 locations in the state.
CenturyLink Inc. will receive the most CAF II money in Wisconsin, $330 million, or $55 million per year, for projects aimed at reaching about 129,000 locations.
Where there are gaps in the CAF II funding, projects could be financed through state Public Service Commission grants.
Without the assistance, broadband providers say, they couldn't afford to extend the service to sparsely populated areas because there aren't enough customers to justify the cost.
Government plays a role in reducing the cost of rural internet service, Ruedebusch said, comparing it to the electrification of rural areas at the turn of the century.
The marketplace for broadband will sort itself out, he said, but government subsidies are necessary for the initial infrastructure.
The Vilas County plan calls for Frontier to deliver broadband access to approximately 5,000 additional locations, using CAF II funding, with most of the work to be completed in the next 18 months.
Under the terms of CAF II, Frontier must offer internet connections that allow download speeds of at least 10 megabits per second, and upload speeds of at least 1 megabit per second. The company must complete 40% of its expansion by the end of 2017, and all of it by the end of 2020.
"Like telephone service in the 20th century, broadband has become essential to life in the 21st century. But, according to the FCC's latest Broadband Progress Report, nearly one in three rural Americans lack access to broadband speeds of 10 megabits download and 1 megabit upload, compared to only one in 100 urban Americans," Frontier said in a statement.
The Vilas County work is underway, although the installation of underground fiber-optic cable will be delayed in the winter, said Frontier spokesman Don Osika.
The CAF II funding isn't going to cover every area of the county. Wireless technology, from companies other than Frontier, will be used in places where it's too expensive to install underground cable to homes and businesses.
And while the grants are significant, Frontier and other broadband providers that accept the money have to put a lot of their own cash into the projects.
"It's proven to be a successful model," said state Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst).
"They really are getting a robust broadband rollout now in Vilas County," Tiffany said.
In Crawford County, insurance executive Jay McCloskey and his neighbors recently organized the Universal Broadband Access Coalition as a way to bring attention to the issue of rural broadband.
In 2015, McCloskey moved to the Gays Mills area with the intention of working from home, via a broadband connection that would keep him in touch with customers and his business headquarters in Minneapolis.
McCloskey said he purchased a farm, to serve as his rural residence, but only after receiving assurances from broadband provider CenturyLink that high-speed internet would be available.
The internet connection was more like dial-up speed, McCloskey said, referring to outdated technology of running a digital signal through a telephone line.
"You could click on a website, go make a sandwich, and when you came back there might be a full screen of something to look at," he said.
There's a fiber cable buried in front of McCloskey's property that could provide him with ultra-fast speeds. But for technical reasons, CenturyLink said, it would not make that connection.
"I understand everyone would like more bandwidth. Unfortunately, there is more to increasing bandwidth than just proximity to fiber lines," said CenturyLink spokesman Nic Breidel.
McCloskey said he rented an office in Gays Mills, 15 minutes from home, so that he could do his work there. He plans to move his company's headquarters from Minnesota to Wisconsin, and high-speed internet access is essential for staying connected with his satellite offices.
The lack of the service in rural areas has created an employment issue, according to McCloskey.
"There's a huge pool of talented people who could work remotely" if they had adequate service, he said.
The Universal Broadband Access Coalition aims to connect with legislators and telecoms.
"Our initial focus was in Crawford County, but I have been contacted by people organizing similar efforts in other counties. And if we can band together with people in other states, more power to us all," McCloskey said.
"I believe that there is strength in numbers, and in educating people about the ways they can make their voices heard. UBAC was established as a means to amplify the collective squeaky wheels through a megaphone, even to sound a siren — if we are able," he added.
Rural broadband has become essential in an economy where the ability to complete an electronic transaction is now indispensable, according to a recent report from the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.
It's a way of diminishing distance, said Norman Jacknis, senior fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum in New York.
"There is a phenomenon — certainly it's true in New York, California, Washington and Canada — where people spend three or four days in a city and three or four days in what we call 'the country.' Are they rural residents? Are they urban residents? As long as they have connectivity, you cannot tell," Jacknis said.