Area communities underserved
By Scott Bellile
Rural Wisconsin residents who lack adequate internet service could soon get a boost.
Gov. Scott Walker will ask state lawmakers to approve a $35.5 million proposal to install high-speed broadband internet in remote areas. He announced his plan Thursday, Dec. 1, at Muehl Public Library in Seymour.
Through Walker’s 70-plus listening sessions he hosted this year, “One of the things that came up consistently across the state was people talking, particularly in rural parts, about the need to have greater access to high-speed internet connection,” he said.
If the legislature approves the plan in January, telecommunications companies could get to work by June. The service expansions would take place over the next two-and-a-half years.
“Our goal is within this next budget cycle to have every place in the state connected,” Walker said. “I’d rather have it sooner rather than later. It’s something people are hungry for all across the state of Wisconsin.”
A portion of the $35 million would help reimburse participating municipalities through Broadband Expansion Grants.
Another part would fund Technology for Educational Achievement grants, which would support schools’ upgrade efforts.
Education was one of three circumstances Walker highlighted where high-speed internet is a necessity.
“Even if the students are able to go online at school, you’ve got students going back home that if they live out on the farm or out in the woods, in a spot where they can’t get access, and it takes them 45 minutes to download a PDF file, that’s pretty hard to do your homework,” he said.
The other two circumstances he emphasized were business – professionals need the ability to work anytime, anywhere – and tourism.
“Even someone who wants to get away from it all … wants to sit out on that lake or on a shoreline and maybe watch a Netflix movie while they’re relaxing and watching the sun set,” Walker said of tourists.
The proposed state spending would be used on top of federal dollars coming in through the Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II. Administered by the Federal Communications Commission, CAF Phase II will fund $570 million in upgrades in Wisconsin through 2020.
Cellcom CEO explains issue
The cost to install high-speed internet in remote areas is high because there are fewer people using them.
“We could be looking at easily a million dollars for a relatively short run of fiber. And you just can’t justify it,” said Patrick Riordan, CEO of Cellcom and parent company Nsight Telservices. “So if you can get someone who comes in like the state does and says, ‘Look, we’re going to put $200,000, or we’re going to put $250,000 towards that as long as you deliver’ – and they specify you have to deliver so much, so you’re actually doing something and you can prove it, which I’m all in favor of – then you’ve got that money to make that project happen. Otherwise it doesn’t happen.”
For Cellcom, the next couple years would entail replacing the copper wiring running to its towers with fiber optics.
Riordan said slow internet is preventing too many customers from accessing what they want in Northeastern Wisconsin, including in Waupaca and Outagamie counties.
“There’s inadequacies in some of the rural areas, like even these counties,” Riordan said. “Even though they’re more populated obviously than Northern Wisconsin, we still have areas that could use service here.”
He said many rural civilians have weak broadband, but some out there could be using dial-up or forgoing internet altogether.
He commended the state government for realizing Wisconsin’s issue, saying the federal government doesn’t have that awareness.
Internet speeds by community
The FCC defines broadband internet as running at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.
The Wisconsin Broadband Map compiles average broadband speeds by location using advertised rates. It’s available to the public at broadbandmap.wisconsin.gov.
It map hasn’t been updated since 2015 and won’t reflect the most recent installations, but according to the map:
• Charter Communications advertises wireline (internet by cord) speeds faster than the FCC’s minimum in New London, Hortonville, Waupaca, Clintonville, Marion, Embarrass and Bear Creek: 100-plus Mbps downloads and 3-6 Mbps uploads.
• Connections lag in Weyauwega, Fremont, Iola and Scandinavia, where telecommunications companies advertise 15-20 mbps for downloads and 1.5 Mbps for uploads. These speeds drop further outside city limits.
• The Manawa and Ogdensburg area endures download speeds of less than half the FCC’s definition. The area averages 6-10 Mbps. Upload speeds still met or exceeded the definition.
• Data was unavailable for many rural areas. These tend to see the slowest connections.
• Wireless and mobile download speeds were slower than wireline speeds. This is normal anywhere.