Tom Still: Better broadband coverage can create economic ‘highways’ in rural Wisconsin

2014-05-04T07:00:00Z Tom Still: Better broadband coverage can create economic ‘highways’ in rural WisconsinTOM STILL | Wisconsin Technology Council president

Carl Ruedebusch is a veteran businessman who understands how high-speed Internet connections can make or break economic opportunity – depending on where you live in Wisconsin.

Ruedebusch owns a Madison development company that has built millions of square feet of commercial space , including parts of the Fitchburg Technology Campus and the TEC Center on the city’s North Side near Madison Area Technical College.

He also owns a small business incubator in the northern Wisconsin community of Manitowish Waters, which he leased for a song to the Vilas County Economic Development Corp. in 2013 to spur growth of companies and jobs near his “second” home.

In Madison, Ruedebusch sees young people flocking to jobs that somehow owe their existence to the Internet. In Vilas County, he worries that creative young people will flee if they can’t pursue “knowledge economy” careers in the Northwoods.

That’s why the latest Vilas County incubator, which is remodeled retail space on Highway 51 in Manitowish Waters, provides its tenants with wireless access to high-speed Internet and state-of-the-art video conferencing capabilities.

Unfortunately, that kind of bandwidth is the exception for much of rural Wisconsin. Lack of high-speed broadband is the rule.

Broadband is generally described as enough bandwidth, or high-speed Internet connectivity, to carry multiple voice, video or data channels simultaneously. That can be accomplished through fiber-optic lines or through wireless networks.

“So many businesses today are based on the Internet that if you’re a young person looking for a job in a place with poor broadband, you’ve probably got to leave town,” said Ruedebusch, who is helping to lead an effort to expand broadband coverage in Vilas County.

In addition to being a “brain drain” worry for rural Wisconsin, Ruedebusch sees high-speed broadband as essential for the state’s tourism industry and as good public policy in general, just as the interstate highway system and rural electrification were in past decades.

Below average rank

Wisconsin ranks below average among the 50 states when it comes to high-speed Internet access, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. A major reason for the state’s mediocre ranking is access in rural Wisconsin, where many telecom providers are trying to swap their historic commitment to landline service to investments in broadband.

Much like other communities across the United States, rural Wisconsin would benefit from enhanced broadband connections. Here are some reasons why:

• Broadband allows small businesses to expand their markets and customer bases to regional, national and even international levels through greater use of online sales channels.

• It fosters opportunities for creation of businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. economy.

• It enables hospitals and clinics to make better use of telemedicine. Examples include rapidly locating digital medical records and medical images that can be more easily transmitted to doctors or clinics in remote locations. This can save lives and improve health.

•• It provides rural Wisconsin residents with greater access to higher education or continued education through “distance learning” systems. These systems themselves can become an export industry for Wisconsin, which has a strong “K-through-gray” education structure and companies engaged in educational software.

• It will enhance tourism. Wisconsin is a prime tourism destination, but some in the industry find themselves losing opportunities to book sales if their broadband service is slow or erratic. Tourists used to send postcards; today, they Tweet, post on Facebook or send an Instagram — and they want to stay connected, even if they’re on vacation.

• It will enhance public safety by allowing more rapid response to emergencies, whether those are medical emergencies, police calls or events related to natural disasters.

Wisconsin telecom companies are working toward faster broadband coverage, but it’s often a matter of economics in counties where there are fewer people and a lot more territory to cover.

The state Public Service Commission and the affiliated LinkWISCONSIN initiative are engaged in mapping broadband coverage and speed, working with local and regional leaders, consumers and providers.

It’s also a priority in the Legislature, where the Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities, chaired by state Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, has taken an interest in rural broadband needs.

Advocates such as Ruedebusch realize Wisconsin can’t have ubiquitous broadband service overnight – or even next year. “It’s probably a 10-year process,” he concedes.

But that process begins with setting realistic goals and forming partnerships that can help places such as Vilas County attract and keep business and talent.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the State Journal.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(15) Comments

  1. GodHeals
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    GodHeals - May 05, 2014 3:47 am
    High Speed Broadband is a NECESSITY for modern economy economic development, access to virtually endless resources including medical care, education, commerce etc. Wisconsin is pathetically behind in rural areas:

    See these great interactive maps:

    Also this article:
  2. witness2012
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    witness2012 - May 04, 2014 11:10 pm
    Expanding broadband internet access is EXACTLY what government should be involved in since it is no longer a luxury, but a basic necessity for civic involvement, medical access, and economic activity.

    Please take care of the rural parts of the state and watch their economies begin to grow accordingly.
  3. Lexus Peterson
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    Lexus Peterson - May 04, 2014 5:40 pm
    Hmmm. Priority of the legislature hey? I saw broadband was up at joint finance this week. Let's see how they vote.
  4. eclectic
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    eclectic - May 04, 2014 3:32 pm
    High speed internet is one of many things in life that are desirable, and often related to where we live. Job opportunities, education opportunities, climate, closeness to family members, cost of living, and distance to work are all factors that influence where we live.

    We make decisions about where we live based on all of these factors. Those people that place a high priority on inexpensive high speed internet need to factor that into their living decisions. It is not something that government should subsidize or be involved in.

    I am not bothered at all by people who value high speed internet moving to the city to get it. No more than I am bothered by people who want to get back to nature moving to the country.
  5. truthzeeker
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    truthzeeker - May 04, 2014 2:21 pm
    One of the biggest windfalls (stealing legally) for the internet companies is to sell you high speed and deliver slow speed. Everytime check my speed is is but half or one third of what I am suppose to get. CROOKS! Repulican at that since they are the party that will do nothing for the little guy.
  6. Monitor
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    Monitor - May 04, 2014 12:14 pm
    Tom Still, I would like to see a comprehensive report of "following the money" in getting high speed connection to rural Wisconsin. Consumers have been paying hundreds of millions of dollars for many years for this to happen, but it seems as that money disappears from somewhere to nowhere. I am referring to the numerous "fees" that is added onto each land line, cell phone, and smart phone in the state. Service providers collect the fees and taxes. Some of this is kept by them just so they can forward the government fees and taxes to the specific agencies. But what happens to the monies collected for connecting rural schools, libraries, healthcare facilities, businesses, and consumers? Please note that there are additional and separate surcharge fees collected for E911, county telecom, and Police & Fire. I have a family of 4, and am paying around $33 every month in fees, surcharges, and taxes for a land line, internet connection, 2 dumb cell phones, and 2 smart phones. This is not unusual for most families across the state -- but what has been happening with all of this money ???
  7. snootyelites
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    snootyelites - May 04, 2014 11:51 am
    The biggest problem in the US is ditch digging and monopolies. Because of cheap labor Asia, Europe & Latin America has better broadband. They also have far more competition. You can switch your SIM card frequently!

    We got to move away from wiring to something like a low orbit satellite or drone based broadband coverage. While at it break up the monopolies that fix prices, kill competition and offer terrible service. Many non travelers think we have excellent broadband.

    High Speed Rural broadband is a game changer as populations will move to rural areas. With augmented reality you can live in Podunk USA and attend theater, games and other types of entertainment.
  8. witness2012
    Report Abuse
    witness2012 - May 04, 2014 11:48 am
    Expanding broadband service to rural parts of the state should have been an investment in infrastructure that happened years ago that would have really helped revitalize struggling economies.

    And, it can't be left up to the private sector, either. Just like it took the Tennessee Valley Authority to finally expand electrical access to rural parts of the nation in the 1930's, it will take publicly funded internet expansion of fiber optic networks in 2014.

    Let's get on it.
  9. deb deppeler
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    deb deppeler - May 04, 2014 11:16 am
    Until voters demand high speed Internet access, and cell service, be regulated as utilities; and that those utilities be available to all residential areas, we will have urban areas with many and best options and rural areas with least and most costly options. That is, if the rural areas have options at all.

    Free market does not guarantee service to all, and prices are only kept reasonable by competition. The expense of connecting many people in close proximity to each other is less than the cost to connect few people that are far from each other. So the best opportunity for profit is in the urban areas.

    It takes regulation to force service providers to connect outside highest profit areas; and regulation requires enforcement, and enforcement requires money.

    I mostly support socializing these costs to us all to improve options for rural communities ... though, I'm not so interested in subsidizing these costs just so business owners to get broadband access to their vacation homes.
  10. ChooChoo
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    ChooChoo - May 04, 2014 11:11 am
    Yes, my UW department will be paying twice what we now pay for the internet within 5years because we can no longer use WiscNet. So much for the "conservative" GOP.
  11. mzd
    Report Abuse
    mzd - May 04, 2014 9:28 am
    I hear WiscNet is doing quite well as an independent non-profit. While WiscNet is required to cut it's ties with the UW System, it continues to serve private colleges, schools, and libraries. Maybe it's a good thing since they are now able to expand their client base. I hope the day comes when AT&T rues the day they introduced this legislation.
  12. mzd
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    mzd - May 04, 2014 9:23 am
    I keep hearing about rural broadband but have yet to see anything in rural Green County. I know Frontier and Charter have fiber with a half mile of my house but neither chooses to expand to our small cluster of 20 homes. If it were not for LiteWire and the satellite providers we would be stuck with dial up. :-(

    IMHO, providers should not be able to pick and choose who they wish to serve. If they elect to come into an area they should serve everyone.
  13. davea
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    davea - May 04, 2014 8:40 am
    I has been dealing with slow speeds, with my "high speed connection", through Frontier, and finally called to complain. I dreaded having to deal with their annoying phone connection service. I was told that they would have send out a tech. to check it. I got a call a couple hours latter, telling me it should be up and running OK now, because a switch was set to one instead of three, or something like that. Now I found it impossible to get any kind of a refund, after paying for high speed, and not getting it, for a couple months!
  14. Beingbucky
    Report Abuse
    Beingbucky - May 04, 2014 8:09 am
    It takes chutzpah to write this story without mentioning Republican efforts to kill WiscNet. As a MJS post points out, to the GOP the free market solution is always cheaper and better, and when it isn't you kill off the alternative. Just like with rural electrification, the solution for rural broadband is a public entity like WiscNet. Of course Still the Shill can't say that. He can't even bring up the inconvenient truth that the GOP is responsible for much of the state's rural broadband problem.
  15. Sheriff Buford T Justice
    Report Abuse
    Sheriff Buford T Justice - May 04, 2014 7:46 am
    Frontier sells you a 6meg package and then you find out they limit you to 1.3megs. What a bunch of crooks!

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