Speakers Address Jobs, Economy and Broadband Internet in Iron County

03/26/2015 Digital Leader, Economic Development, Rural Broadband, Wireless, Wisconsin by j.smith

A 2014 survey of Iron County residents found that of 803 property owners who returned surveys, 162 would start or move a business to Iron County given adequate broadband internet. This was one result reported by Will Andresen, UW Extension, during a panel discussion on broadband at the Oma Town Hall.  The program, sponsored by the Iron County Citizen’s Forum, included 6 speakers. All agreed that improving broadband encourages economic development.

The above cited survey was developed by the Gogebic Range Broadband Committee.  It identified parts of the county needing improved access.

Other results included:

  • 347 landowners would telecommute from Iron County given adequate broadband,
  • 171 seasonal residents would spend more time in Iron County with improved internet,
  • 211 landowners had no internet available.
Iron County Broadband Panel

L:R: Will Andresen (UWEX Iron County), Mark Scribner (CenturyLink Area Supervisor), and Beatrice Bender (Bad River Tribal Planner working on Superior Connections projects)

Mark Scribner, Centurylink Area Supervisor, reviewed the history of internet service.  Similar to phone and electrical grids, internet began in cities, later spreading to rural areas.

He described Centurylink’s work to upgrade internet capacity through fiber optics and other technology.  Iron County’s population density is seven people/square mile.  Fiber optic cable costs ($40,000 per mile) make return on investment difficult.  Scribner described the Connect America Fund (CAF). This federal program will fund broadband in each census block to bring a minimum 10MG service to all residents. Centurylink is hoping to use CAF to bring census blocks in the Iron County up to CAF standards.

Beatrice Bender, Manager of Superior Connections, a non-profit owned and operated by the   Bad River Tribe, discussed plans to increase high-speed broadband services to the reservation and neighboring communities. In 2013, the Tribe received a $2.5 grant from the Administration for Native Americans to decrease the disparity in reservation telecommunication services.  Utilizing fiber optic lines the Tribe owns from Ironwood to Duluth, Superior Connections will offer fixed and wireless services.  One quarter of tribal members live at Birch Hill in Iron County, which is in the Tribally Designated Service Area where Superior Connections work is focused.

Three speakers talked about their work as telecommuters living in rural areas.  Peter Hatch from Springstead described his work producing laboratory software.  He talked about the challenges of “upstream” broadband which limits his ability to work remotely.

Luke Huybrecht is a Mercer High School senior who has been telecommuting for several years.  He works for Best Practice Professionals, a one source document site for hospital equipment information.  Challenges he cited were slow speeds preventing video chat for meetings.

Bobbi Rongstad is an energy advisor working from Gurney.  She started telecommuting 13 years ago with dial up. Of her 12 co-workers across Wisconsin, only 3 go to an office.  Geographic distribution across rural Wisconsin is a goal of her program, making telecommuting an efficient choice.

Iron Co Broadband meetingA lively discussion followed. Topics included coverage in remote areas, geographic challenges (winding roads, lakes and wetlands), and services like Netflix that eat up internet capacity.  The “boxes” installed by Centurylink provide service for up to 4 miles, but the farther from a box the slower the service.  Neighbors who live “across the lake” may have decidedly different internet access.  There was also discussion on the importance of having more than one telecommunications provider in an area so if one service is temporarily down, emergency communications are still available.

If you are interested learning more or helping promote broadband in the area, please contact the Gogebic Range Broadband Committee through Will Andresen at (715)561-2695.

The next Citizen’s Forum program will be on May 18, 6:30 pm at Mercer Community Center.  The topic is economic importance of forest products and forest based recreation, including a 1 pm tour at Action Floors in Mercer.  Advance registration for the tour is requested.  For more information on the May program, tour, or Citizen’s Forum, please contact Terry Daulton, 715-476-3530.


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