Broadband Internet access in Northwestern Wisconsin has grown substantially since 2011, but it still has a long way to go. Although 99 percent of residents in the state’s urban areas receive data at 25 megabits per second, that speed is only available to 57 percent of people who reside in rural areas.
“That really does highlight the challenge we have here. It’s a roughly similar situation across the country. We’re not at the bottom of the list, but we’re not at the top. We definitely have room to grow,” Wisconsin Broadband Director Angie Dickison told a Feb. 27 panel at WITC in Ashland.
Expanding coverage is costly, according to for-profit telephone service providers and other telecommunications firms. In rural areas, it’s about $8,000 per subscriber, said Jeff Lee, operations director at Norvado in Cable, Wis., which has been working with fiber optic cable installations since 1983.
“The return on investment is just too far out there,” he said.
The lack of high speed Internet access is particularly evident on American Indian reservations, explained Melissa Doud, chief operating officer for the Lac du Flambeau Business Development Corp. Returning to the reservation after serving for 20 years in the U.S. Army, she found some areas didn’t even have digital subscriber line (DSL) service, a relatively slow system of communicating Internet data across telephone lines. The lack of broadband hampers student education and business development.
“It was like the Twilight Zone,” she said.
The FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report found that more than 68 percent of Americans living on tribal lands in rural areas lack access to fixed broadband of speeds of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. Nonetheless, there are no funds available to serve tribal lands in the federal $2 billion Connect America Fund II program.
Facing pressure from constituents, state governments have responded by providing grants to jumpstart broadband development in underserved rural areas. Wisconsin responded by:
• Awarding 42 state grants for fiscal years 2014 to 2017.
• Approving 10 grants for fixed wireless systems and 10 more for digital subscriber line (DSL) systems
• Allocating 18 grants for fiber to the home/premises (FTTH)
• Funded three grants for fiber and co-axial cable backbone facilities
• Approved a Wi-Fi system grant.
Overall, that investment connected 600 businesses and more than 20,000 homes to high-speed broadband service.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is committed to improving access, Dickison said. He held listening sessions in 71 of 72 counties during 2016 and supported an expansion of state funding in the last budget cycle.
“There was historic broadband expansion,” she told those who attended the session, who represented a variety of industries. The money, $35.5 million, is in very high demand. Seventy-eight application totaling $22.8 million were submitted by the January deadline for the first round of the 2018 infrastructure grant funding. Another $7.5 million is yet to be allocated.
With fiber optic cable and copper hardline so expensive to install across long distances, wireless options are being considered. The Federal Communications Commission has television spectrum available, said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology council. It’s known as “white space” and currently is used as a buffer between TV channels. Microsoft has proposed it be reserved for broadband access. The signals can travel about six miles. The signals are transmitted at a frequency that can penetrate some obstacles.
AT&T currently is testing AirGig, a system that, if successful, will transmit Internet data through the existing electric grid.
“The results we’ve seen from our outdoor labs testing have been encouraging, especially as you think about where we’re heading in a 5G world,” John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president, technology and operations, said on AT&T’s web site.
Satellite Internet access, which has been offered before, also is on the table. Several who attended the Ashland round table, however, were less than excited about their past experiences, which involved geo-stationary satellites located more than 22,000 miles above the Earth. The signals were slowed by the 44,000-mile journey into space and back, a phenomenon TV viewers can easily notice when watching live interviews between people in the United States and those in far-away countries.
Now, SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, proposes to launch about 800 low-orbit satellites (about 700 miles in space) to speed up the process. But it’s not the first attempt to harness that technology. Firms including Teledesic, Iridium and Globalstar tried similar ventures in the past and failed.
Closer to Earth, Google X has proposed to launch Internet balloons to a height of approximately 11 miles to provide 4G service. Called “Project Loon,” it’s currently in the research stage.
“We need to look at all of the options. Some communities want to spend and bring fiber. Others want a wireless option,” Dickison said.
Broadband has given smaller healthcare facilities the ability to offer top-level services that previously were only available at large metro hospitals, said Ashland Memorial Medical Center CEO Jason Douglas. Today’s technology allows clinical employees to connect with peers in bigger cities without the need for technical specialists, he said. For example, MMC can quickly supply data to a stroke neurologist at Allina Health in St. Paul.
“They can almost immediately begin an assessment, start giving medications and improve the patient’s outcome,” he said. Through its membership in a cooperative of rural healthcare providers, Ashland MMC also can buy and sell services such as psychiatric consultations.
Superior Sauna owner Chuck Porter said 95 percent of his sales originate via the Internet, with the other 5 percent originating near his Ashland headquarters. He launched the company from scratch in 2004 and now has annual sales of $2.5 million.
“We use the Internet to get people interested, then we send them samples and build relationships. Now we can pretty much do anything. For $40 a month, we can go worldwide. It’s really the Internet that built the business,” he noted, with shipping costs being his only limit. “From Ashland or Bayfield Counties, we can do business virtually everywhere.”
Smaller firms haven’t always been as fortunate. On March 6, Wisconsin Public Radio reported that some residents in the Town of Summit and elsewhere still have no option beyond dial-up service. Town Chairman Dan Corbin said CenturyLink is the main provider of high-speed internet for many residents throughout the region. However, he and other northern Wisconsin leaders say residents have yet to see the expansion of broadband service to rural areas of Douglas County.
CenturyLink, AT&T and Frontier received $572 million in federal subsidies under the Connect America Fund through the Federal Communications Commission. Providers had to meet a goal of building out broadband to 40 percent of households and businesses across the state by the end of last year. Corbin told WPR they’re not seeing the investment up north.
Similar concerns were raised at the Ashland panel discussion. Still said that if the three carriers don’t spend the money on broadband by 2020, it will have to be returned to the federal government. Some in attendance acknowledged the money is being spent outside of the metro, but they said carriers have been picking the low-hanging fruit first, leaving some of the sparsely populated areas for last.