Wis­con­sin’s low-rank­ing in­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture harms ru­ral economies

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - By Julie Grace WisCon­text

Lim­ited ac­cess to re­li­able, high-speed in­ter­net ser­vice is an is­sue fac­ing ru­ral Wis­con­sin that gen­er­ates a lot of at­ten­tion and calls for ac­tion, but change may seem to move at a crawl.

For many Wis­con­sinites, lower-speed broad­band op­tions or lack of ac­cess sti­fles in­di­vid­ual eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties and lim­its busi­ness de­vel­op­ment op­tions for com­mu­ni­ties.

The state fares poorly in na­tional rank­ings of in­ter­net in­fra­struc­ture. U.S. News and World Re­port lists Wis­con­sin:

41st in the United States in its rank­ing for in­ter­net ac­cess.

40th for ul­tra-fast in­ter­net ac­cess. 32nd for broad­band ac­cess. Mean­while, a re­port re­leased in July ranked Wis­con­sin 36th in the na­tion for mo­bile phone in­ter­net speeds.

The sta­tus of broad­band ac­cess and speed is a well-es­tab­lished is­sue in Wis­con­sin, par­tic­u­larly in more ru­ral ar­eas, such as the state’s north­ern reaches.

Know­ing where in Wis­con­sin broad­band is not read­ily avail­able is nec­es­sary for defin­ing the scope of this is­sue and tak­ing steps to im­prove ac­cess for af­fected ar­eas.

While a ready source for data on broad­band ac­cess comes from the Wis­con­sin Broad­band Of­fice, this in­for­ma­tion is col­lected by the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion.

Angie Dick­i­son, state broad­band di­rec­tor with the Pub­lic Ser­vice Com­mis­sion of Wis­con­sin, said the state’s of­fice maps cov­er­age lev­els us­ing data col­lected by the FCC, which is sub­mit­ted twice a year by in­ter­net ser­vice providers.

How­ever, col­lect­ing the in­for­ma­tion is not without chal­lenges, she said.

“The data is recorded at a cen­sus block level. So, if one ad­dress in the block re­ceives one ser­vice, the whole block gets mea­sured that way,” Dick­i­son said. “The chal­lenge is even greater in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, where cen­sus blocks are larger.”

Based on avail­able data, broad­band ac­cess in seven coun­ties along the Mis­sis­sippi River in western Wis­con­sin lags be­hind other parts of the state. Por­tions of Pepin, Buf­falo, Trem­pealeau, La Crosse, Ver­non, Craw­ford and Grant coun­ties have lit­tle to no broad­band ser­vice.

Ad­di­tion­ally, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mo­bile — ma­jor mo­bile providers — largely do not cover these coun­ties in western Wis­con­sin, as in­di­cated on a map pre­sented by the Wis­con­sin Broad­band Of­fice.

While all res­i­dents in the seven-county area of western Wis­con­sin have ac­cess to at least one in­ter­net provider, less than half of the res­i­dents in Buf­falo and Ver­non coun­ties have ac­cess to two or more providers.

And less than 10 per­cent of res­i­dents in Pepin, Buf­falo, Trem­pealeau and Ver­non coun­ties have ac­cess to three or more providers.

Com­par­a­tively, in Mil­wau­kee County — the state’s most pop­u­lous county — 99 per­cent of res­i­dents have at least two in­ter­net providers to choose from and 65 per­cent of res­i­dents have ac­cess to three or more providers.

BROAD­BAND INI­TIA­TIVES

The im­por­tance of greater broad­band ac­cess and im­proved speed goes beyond con­ve­nience.

A 2013 re­port from the Na­tional Agri­cul­tural and Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment Pol­icy Cen­ter — a pol­icy or­ga­ni­za­tion funded by the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture to re­search ru­ral is­sues — found me­dian house­hold in­come in ru­ral ar­eas grew at twice the rate where broad­band ser­vice was avail­able, com­pared to where it was un­avail­able.

One new pro­gram be­ing pur­sued by the Wis­con­sin Broad­band Of­fice is the Telecom­muter For­ward! ini­tia­tive, which is de­fined in state statute 196.5405 and serves as a way for com­mu­ni­ties to use broad­band ac­cess as a way to pro­mote eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. This could be through in­creased com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween stake­hold­ers, pro­mo­tion of telecom­muter-friendly workspaces or mar­ket­ing telecom­muter broad­band prac­tices.

An­other state project is the Broad­band For­ward! ini­tia­tive, which cer­ti­fies cities in an ef­fort to spur eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sig­nals cities have taken steps to­ward in­vest­ing in broad­band in­fra­struc­ture.

TELE­COM CO-OPS IN RU­RAL AR­EAS

In western Wis­con­sin, many ru­ral res­i­dents re­ceive broad­band ac­cess from lo­cal tele­com co­op­er­a­tives — or­ga­ni­za­tions owned and con­trolled by their mem­bers that op­er­ate on a ser­vice-at-cost ba­sis.

A 2017 re­port is­sued by the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin Cen­ter for Co­op­er­a­tives noted ru­ral Wis­con­sin’s deep his­tory of us­ing co­op­er­a­tives to sat­isfy in­fra­struc­ture needs.

Wis­con­sin’s 11 tele­com co­op­er­a­tives take a longer-term per­spec­tive on in­vest­ments and largely fo­cus on fiber op­tic net­works that are 10 to 20 times faster than 3G or 4G wire­less ser­vice.

“A co-op is what one per­son couldn’t do on their own. Smaller sec­tors can’t achieve what larger cities can,” said Gina Tomil­son, CEO of Cochrane Co-op Tele­phone. “It’s mem­ber-driven and mem­ber-run. It’s not about the bot­tom line. You still have to be fis­cally re­spon­si­ble, but it’s about serv­ing ru­ral Amer­ica and get­ting mem­bers what they need.”

In June 2017, the town of Mil­ton in Buf­falo County re­ceived a state grant to par­tially fund a broad­band ex­pan­sion project by Cochrane Co-Op.

Tomil­son said Cochrane “put the plow in the ground” in Au­gust to in­stall fiber for the project. Once com­plete, all res­i­dents in Mil­ton will have ac­cess to faster broad­band speeds.

“We’re al­ways ed­u­cat­ing res­i­dents on what they can do to im­prove their broad­band ac­cess or how to uti­lize what they have,” said Tomil­son. “Al­most ev­ery­one we serve has fiber to their home. We’re fight­ing big­ger com­pa­nies, but yet we’re pro­vid­ing bet­ter and cheaper ser­vices to ru­ral res­i­dents.”

Ed­i­tor’s note: This story was orig­i­nally pub­lished on WisCon­text, which pro­duced the ar­ti­cle in a part­ner­ship with Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Ra­dio, Wis­con­sin Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion and Co­op­er­a­tive Ex­ten­sion. This re­port was edited for length.

PHOTO: PIXABAY

For many Wis­con­sinites, lower-speed broad­band op­tions or lack of ac­cess sti­fles in­di­vid­ual eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties and lim­its busi­ness de­vel­op­ment op­tions for com­mu­ni­ties.

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