Are you happy with the speed of your broadband (internet) connection? If you live in a rural area of Wisconsin the answer to that question may be no. In an era where a 25 Mbps (megabit per second) connection is the recommended minimum speed, it’s not uncommon to have limited options for broadband with connection speeds (0.5-10 Mbps) much slower than those in urban areas of the state where residents enjoy connections at speeds ranging from 20 Mbps up to 1Gbps.  As Technology Coordinator for Spooner Area School District, I have had conversations with parents, students, business persons and community members sharing the same frustrations regarding poor broadband internet access in areas of the School District and Washburn County. Additionally, I have heard from many who don’t have or cannot afford high-speed internet service modern life now demands.  

Having access to affordable broadband brings benefits to many areas of our society. Broadband infrastructure is essential to create economic development opportunities for established and startup businesses wishing to reside in our community while competing locally and globally. In addition, research conducted by UW-Extension shows that providing broadband in communities with large numbers of 2nd home ownership (cabins and vacation property) can have a huge economic impact, generating millions of dollars in revenue for local businesses and communities because people are able to spend more time or relocate to the community.

Access to broadband in the community also benefits K-12 and higher-education institutions. Schools can provide a level playing field for students, providing equal access to technology, resources, and information. In addition to providing students with devices (Laptops, Chromebooks, iPads etc.),  broadband internet connection allows access to educational opportunities outside the traditional walls of the school, offered anywhere in the world at any time. Persons wishing to continue their education are able to live and work in our community while taking classes. Utilizing broadband, educators are able to collaborate with peers across the country to share ideas and information to improve instruction and learning. At a district level, broadband access allows information ranging from school board agendas to live-streamed ball games and concerts to be shared within and outside the community. 

Health care, public safety, and government also benefit from broadband access. Telemedicine provides access to specialists and services not available to rural communities. Real-time access to patient data provides more information to make a diagnosis and decide on treatment options. Patient wait times can be decreased and cost savings realized.  Public safety also benefits from broadband through the real-time transfer of data and access to systems anywhere/anytime to reduce response time and make better decisions when responding to calls. With many government programs and services moving online, broadband is also essential for constituents to access services and information provided by local, state and federal government through websites and social media resources.

Every day more individuals rely on broadband for communication and access to information. Use of social media continues to grow and many forms of entertainment (music, movies, television and video) are now delivered online. Additionally, information about everything from banking and employment opportunities to online shopping, college admissions, and apartment rentals are found online.

Meeting the need for affordable residential, business and public sector broadband access presents many challenges but is not unlike challenges rural Wisconsin faced in the 1930’s to provide electrical service for all.  In 1930, electricity was considered a modern necessity necessary to spur economic development, create jobs, and improve the quality of life for those who lacked the basic comforts offered in urban areas. For those of us living in Washburn County, the twenty-first century equivalent of rural electrification is the need to bring affordable broadband Internet service to the homes, businesses, and public sector across Wisconsin.

Addressing broadband challenges will require public and private sector entities to work together and think “outside the box” to implement new and innovative solutions that meet broadband needs. Existing copper wires that supply Internet access to many rural homes and businesses can’t handle all the data we use at the speed we want. Modern fiber networks with the capacity to meet that need are costly and not profitable to provide in rural areas. Fortunately, wireless technologies combined with new radio frequencies and existing television frequencies show promise to provide affordable solutions to meet our broadband needs. It’s also worth noting these wireless technologies are already used in third world countries where traditional fiber networks impractical.  

Establishing our “need” for affordable broadband is also essential. It might seem obvious, but maps showing broadband coverage can be inaccurate or misleading. The Wisconsin Broad Map developed by Link Wisconsin displays statewide internet access as declared by internet service providers (ISP’s). On this map, coverage provided by all ISP’s, including satellite and cellular providers are displayed. Looking at Washburn County on this map, adequate coverage appears to exists even though services may be cost prohibitive, have caps on data usage, or fall short of the advertised “up to” speed.

Taking the time to document need at state and local levels is essential. Doing so provides data for public and private sector entities in the Spooner area to collaborate on grant writing initiatives to fund broadband solutions to meet our needs. You as an individual, business or organization can help document rural broadband need by: 

  • Contacting your Telco/internet provider to document poor or lack of service issues
  • Contacting you elected officials to encourage them to support proposed funding for rural broadband access
  • Visiting the Spooner Area School District website (www.spooner.k12.wi.us) to complete a local survey of broadband access.

Moving forward, we can be thankful that through the work of local and state leaders, funding from the state government for broadband service is increasing and beginning to flow into rural areas of Wisconsin. While improved broadband service by itself is probably not a magic bullet to solve many of the issues and challenges facing rural Wisconsin, it has the potential to improve the quality of life for those of us currently impacted by a lack of affordable broadband. 

[Graphic by Holly S. Snyder]


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