TOWN OF POYGAN, Clear. – At a time when Americans can work and learn remotely from virtually anywhere, Internet access is not a luxury, it is a necessity. However, much of rural Wisconsin has been left behind.
“It’s not a good day for the internet here.” Cheryl Musk from the town of Poygan wages an invisible battle from her dining table.
“Last night we couldn’t get internet here at all. We couldn’t connect to the internet. I don’t know why,” Musk says as she tries unsuccessfully to connect her laptop to her Verizon wireless service provider.
“Over the years it has gotten worse and worse and worse,” she says.
“It gets to the point where I can’t do my business outside of the home.”
Musk, a small business consultant, has been forced to use public internet connections in nearby Oshkosh to get a signal strong enough to work. And she’s not alone.
Hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin have no access to high-speed internet at all, according to a report by Forward Analytics. The report found that 25% of Wisconsin’s rural population lack access to high-speed internet. That’s over 430,000 people and many more people are struggling with the weak connection they do have.
Adequate internet is considered to be 25 MBPS or more. Anything less is not enough to work or study from home. Cheryl Musk says her speeds don’t even come close.
“It’s frustrating,” she says.
Private Internet service providers like TDS Telecom spend millions of dollars laying fiber optic lines thousands of miles in northeastern Wisconsin.
“Broadband is the most legally addictive product a company can sell,” said Drew Peterson, senior VP of Corporate Affairs at TDS.
“Everyone wants faster, more reliable speeds and that’s what we want to bring,” he adds.
TDS brings fiber internet to more than 70,000 addresses in the Fox Valley. Digging 1000 feet of line per day with service from 2022.
“We’re definitely targeting the larger areas where we can reach as many people as possible right away,” said Adam Shavlik, Appleton’s construction manager for Tilson Construction.
“As there is more demand for our services, there are more customers. It creates real opportunities for us because there are significant communities for a company like TDS,” added Peterson.
Bringing high-speed internet to urban areas is not the only problem. Rural Wisconsin and Native American Reservations are left in these digital deserts.
“Everyone has a program to try and set up this infrastructure, but none of them have been effective so far in bringing broadband to the rural areas or bringing broadband to the reserves in important cases because it takes time and a lot more money. and infrastructure than people seem to think,” said Theron Rutyna, IT director for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
According to reports, it costs up to $80,000 or more per mile to install a broadband internet service. In rural areas, it doesn’t reach enough customers to offset the cost.
“The economy is challenging. There are fewer people in those areas. It costs the same to build a fiber route whether you have 100,000 customers or 10 and so that’s one of the challenges I think local municipal areas that are smaller his, face,” says Peterson.
Private companies like TDS Telecom are working to find solutions for rural internet deserts, but it will come a long way.
Cheryl Musk no longer wants to see her internet connection declined. She is taking action by calling the Public Service Commission, Congress, whoever will listen, in an effort to bring functional internet speeds to her side of the state.
“We’re hanging by a thread. What about people coming home from school, working from home, the schools, homeschooling, I mean, it’s not good. They can’t do it,” Musk said.
After 4 years on its crusade for adequate speeds, internet service provider USI received a grant to install fiber optic internet near Cheryl Musk and the surrounding area.
“They’re planning to be here probably April or May and we’ll have real fiber here. That’s better than the best. It’s better than cable!” she says emphatically. “I’m very happy that this is actually happening.”
Broadband experts say digital inclusion is key to helping us thrive as a community and as an economy. Until broadband covers 100 percent of the country, we need crusaders like Musk to make the voices of the countryside heard.
Last month, President Biden signed an infrastructure bill that sets aside $65 billion to provide affordable broadband internet across the country, but that’s still less than the $80 billion needed to cover 100% of US residents. And the ones that are still falling behind are the ones in these rural internet deserts.