(First published in the June 14, 2018 issue of City Pages)
Rural internet access is such a concern that Marathon County included it in its five-year plan alongside other big issues such as the opioid epidemic
Katrina Becher gets frequent requests for recipes, vegetable identification or other food-related queries. The owner of Cattail Organics, a community supported agriculture farm in Athens, knows that’s the reality of doing business. Queries are made over the internet—through texts, Facebook, or email. Mostly, they come through Facebook these days. It’s the new form of short communication, Becker says, with email now mostly reserved for more formal or long form communication, as letters once were.
Just one problem for people like her who do business out in the country: You need good internet or cell phone access. Out in Athens, the internet options are sparser than the population. Becker shares a satellite internet system with her mother. It costs $110 per month, with spotty service that’s sensitive to the weather and has a limit on how much data comes with that monthly fee.
It might sound like a location specific problem but it’s a countywide issue, and one that Marathon County leaders have identified to tackle in its strategic plan that it developed for the next five years. “It actually comes up in the plan three times,” says Marathon County Deputy Administrator Lance Leonhard.
Why? Is it just a few people out in the country complaining that they aren’t getting the amenities of those living in the city?
A study of a five-county region north of Marathon County, through the Fiscal and Economic Research Center and UW-Extension, discovered increasing broadband access in that area could be worth between $41 and $55 million per year. That’s just the impact of people staying longer in their vacation homes, and spending more locally. That says nothing about the value of increased activity for businesses that operate there. “With broadband, people will spend more money here,” says Don Sidlowski, founder of the Northwoods Broadband and Economic Development Coalition, which includes Marathon County.
(On the other hand, internet access also means rural residents would spend more of their buying power online. According to a study by the Hudson Institute, online retail sales in the U.S. would have increased by $1 billion per year if rural areas had the same access to broadband as urban areas.)
Broadband’s importance to Marathon County’s economic development wasn’t lost on county leaders in 2009 when they conducted an internet gap analysis. The study found what’s obvious to most: Coverage in the Wausau area is pretty good, but it gets much worse, real quick, the farther out you are. Most residents in rural areas—even just a few miles outside Wausau— have few if any options for broadband internet, and those options available are limited and costly.
In contrast, Oneida County is now nearly completely covered by broadband options, and it’s paying off, Sidlowski says. Oneida County offers one of the models Marathon County will use to develop a broadband internet plan, and it’s a good one to emulate. Partnering with individual communities allowed a way to cover all of Oneida County with wireless broadband towers without spending a lot of money.
That kind of cooperation could prove to be an important factor as Marathon County struggles with its budget and decides what programs to cut, not add.
Tackling broadband… again
This isn’t the first time Marathon County has looked at the issue of broadband connectivity, but it’s perhaps the most urgent.
Marathon County in 2009 performed an analysis to find where all the gaps in coverage were. It was a scientific look at what a casual observer might have guessed: If you live in Wausau or its immediate metropolitan neighbors, you most likely had pretty good coverage. Step outside of that metro, and you’re in trouble, because you either had access to just one service provider, or none at all.
Then three years ago the county formed a task force to see what could be done about increasing coverage. Its conclusion: Essentially, nothing, as in, “Yeah we need it, but what’s the county supposed to do about it?” No one knew what the county’s role sould be in increasing broadband connectivity, says its then-chair, EJ Stark.
Laying fiber to all the needed areas in Marathon County would be prohibitively costly, and technology such as wireless broadband broadcast from towers was still in its infancy, Stark says. Larger internet providers weren’t too interested in setting up infrastructure to serve rural communities.
But in just three years, wireless broadband has come a long way, and that’s what’s different this time around.
Addressing the rural broadband issue is a repeated point in Marathon County’s five-year strategic plan. For those whose eyes just glossed over at the words “strategic plan,” it should be noted that the broadband gap is included among such major county issues such as the opioid crisis, reducing or dealing with the rising jail population, and addressing childhood trauma. It lays out clear goals for those areas, and broadband is a big part of it, says Deputy County Administrator Lance Leonhard. “Broadband is in there all over the place.”
It falls under the county’s goal to be the healthiest, safest and most prosperous county in the state, because broadband internet is now viewed as similar to rural electrification in the 1920s, when major electric companies wouldn’t deliver electricity to rural customers because it wasn’t seen as cost effective. It took an experimental partnership in Redwing, Minn., between a power company and the University of Minnesota to show that it could be economically feasible. In 1936 the Rural Electrification Act paved the way for loan programs that helped cover much of the U.S. in electricity.
Broadband is starting to see the same support. Both federal (Connect America Fund) and state (Public Service Commission) grants are now available to help build the infrastructure to expand broadband to rural areas. Internet access has become as important and expected a utility as electricity was back in the 1930s.
But broadband is more complicated than electricity, and the technology still is changing quickly. For example, the 2009 gap analysis defined broadband as 768 kilobytes per second, with 200 Kbps uploads— speeds that seem plodding compared to access now measured in megabytes per second. And now there are numerous ways to deliver broadband—cable, fiber, and wireless towers. Laying fiber or cable is very expensive in rural areas.
Marathon County doesn’t even have to reinvent the wheel here. It could just look to what’s working in even more rural counties in the northwoods.
Broadband up north
Katrina Becker checks her phone at Downtown Grocery in Wausau following a vegetable delivery. Spotty internet service at her farm in Athens means she has to take advantage of good connections whenever she can.
In many other countries around the world, someone can be in the middle of the woods and still get a strong wi-fi signal. That doesn’t happen everywhere in Wisconsin, but it does up around Three Lakes. It turns out the town is something of a pioneer in the area of supplying rural broadband.
“We flipped the model of bringing it here,” says Sidlowski, who first led the effort in Three Lakes and later expanded it to Oneida County, about the approach to broadband. “The old model is to wait for it to come to you. That’s a frustrating model.”
Three Lakes held a technology fair, bringing together small service providers and potential customers, talked to residents with land who might be willing to host towers, and partnered with the providers to go after broadband grants to build the infrastructure.
That was about 10 years ago, and it worked; communities around the state sought out how they emulate the “Three Lakes model,” Sidlowski says. The Oneida County Board’s chairman asked Sidlowski if he could do the same for the entire county.
Sidlowski headed up the committee and developed a plan. Oneida county first passed a resolution of support, with no money attached. The vote was meant to signal area service providers that the county took it seriously, Sidlowski says. The county later put $35,000 toward broadband infrastructure, including $5,000 for the first year, then reached out to communities in the county such as Minocqua and Hazelhurst and had them each pitch in $5,000 that year. That totaled $50,000 toward the first broadband wireless towers, and was matched by a grant from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission for a total of $100,000.
Smaller internet providers were key to making it work, Sidlowski says. To receive WPSC grants, communities must partner with an internet service provider, and most large providers weren’t interested in the small size of the project, Sidlowski says, but smaller providers were.
Trying it in Marathon County
Marathon County has already been in touch with one of those smaller providers, says Jim Warsaw, executive director of MCDEVCO, the county’s economic development wing. His office has looked at the issue of broadband for a while now. Warsaw says he has seen four to five businesses walk away from potential local sites recently because of the lack of internet access. It’s not just rural areas that have gaps, Warsaw says. Even areas of Kronenwetter and Mosinee experience dead spots for broadband.
Echoing what Sidlowski says, laying fiber across Marathon County is pretty much out of the question. According to the US Department of Transportation, the average cost of laying fiber to support broadband technology in the U.S. averages $27,000 per mile. It’s easy to see how those costs would add up quickly for a county that is more than 1,500 square miles—the largest geographically in the state.
Warsaw says he and other county leaders including IT Department head Gerry Klein have worked with a company in Weston called Dream Systems to calculate how much tower coverage would cost. Initial reports put it at around $1.5 million to cover the entire county with wireless broadband, Warsaw says. A new analysis is underway, Warsaw says.
Solutions have been found in the county on a smaller scale already, Warsaw says. The village of Weston in 2014 received a broadband grant specifically for its business park, partnering with Charter Spectrum to leverage a state grant to build the needed infrastructure.
The adjacent town of Weston in 2016 partnered with Frontier and sought out a state grant for $201,000, along with $50,000 from its own funds and $300,000 from the state, Warsaw says.
Some small providers have been searching out their own grants. Amherst Telephone Company received a grant to build fiber lines in the town of Sharon in Portage and town of Bevent in Marathon County this year, for example.
The county government’s self-defined task is to look at how to systematize broadband expansion, to make sure the entire county is eventually covered, not just hoping private providers will do it on their own. Task force members in 2015 wondered what the county’s role was in addressing the broadband gap. Today, by putting the issue into its five-year strategic plan, officials are clearly saying that the county will play a role.
As Oneida County demonstrated, it doesn’t necessarily have to happen all at once. That northern county saw cooperation from its communities of Rhinelander, Minocqua, Three Lakes, Hazelhurst and more, plus small internet providers. Each pitched in money, their joint effort leveraged grant dollars from the state, and each year this cooperation added to the network until most of the county was covered.
That’s something Marathon County’s Extension, Education and Economic Development Committee will consider Thursday, June 14, in its first meeting to discuss how the county tackles broadband going forward. This time, the county knows it will have a role, as well as a five-year deadline.