Rock County’s rural communities await broadband internet upgrades
Sunday, April 30, 2017
JANESVILLE—Johnstown Town Clerk Mary Mawhinney understands why high-speed internet companies haven’t expanded their services to the town.
“I realize we live in the hinterlands,” she said. “We don’t have the populace out here to make it look interesting to people.”
Harmony Town Board Chairman John Bergman said broadband internet is a bigger issue than most local governments can handle.
“The town hasn’t done anything directly other than supporting the idea that rural internet should be expanded,” he said. “Everybody ideally should have access to it.”
Fulton Town Clerk Connie Zimmerman just wishes the internet was a little faster.
“We just all kind of laugh and chuckle that our internet is awful. We’re not even that rural,” she said. “We’re not out there in the sticks.”
Most rural communities have some form of internet. But it’s often slow and sometimes unreliable, leading federal and state officials to intensify efforts to expand broadband, or high-speed, internet access.
A survey of Rock County ZIP codes shows the county’s fastest, most widely available internet is found in Janesville and Beloit.
In those cities, cable company Charter boasts maximum speeds of 100 megabits per second and is accessible to more than 90 percent of households, according to Broadband Now.
But as commercial districts turn to cornfields, availability dwindles. In Orfordville, Charter is available in 5 percent of homes. In Clinton, AT&T is accessible in 4 percent of households, and its speed drops significantly.
Those who access the internet in different ways can face outages and slow speeds. And a lack of reliable service can hurt rural areas economically as technology becomes more integral in business.
Internet service can come via television cables, phone lines, wireless towers or satellites. But broadband internet refers to a minimum speed level, not a specific type of connection.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as anything with download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second, said Mary Kluz, an outreach specialist at UW Extension’s Broadband and E-Commerce Education Center.
“Broadband is always on. You don’t have to tap into it necessarily, but you have almost instant access,” Kluz said. “We consider it possible to have multiple devices on it at one location.”
In rural areas, the most widely available internet companies have maximum download speeds that barely meet or fall below the broadband threshold.
Most of those companies offer fixed wireless connections. Towers emit wireless signals, and homes that can see the tower access the internet through a small antenna.
A.J. Becker, who owns Sonic, a local fixed wireless company, said the service is generally reliable but cannot compete on speed. Sonic shares radio frequencies to emit signals, and wired providers such as Charter and AT&T have faster connections because they have more bandwidth capability, he said.
But if you can’t see a fixed wireless tower, you can’t get service at all. Hilly terrain or dense tree cover can prevent homes from using fixed wireless and force them to get satellite, said Rise Broadband co-founder Jeff Kohler, whose Colorado-based company operates 28 towers in southern Wisconsin.
“We have to deal with obstructions in the air. Once we do make the connection, it’s just as reliable as wireline,” he said. “We just can’t connect everybody.”
Why have companies with chronic speed and accessibility limitations proliferated in rural areas? It all comes down to money.
Rise Broadband can build its wireless networks for one-fifth the cost of wired internet providers. Once equipment is on a tower or home, Rise has few maintenance expenses besides periodic upgrades to a tower’s capacity, Kohler said.
It’s expensive for wired providers to install their infrastructure in new areas, so they need to make sure it’s worth the cost, State Broadband Director Angie Dickison said.
“For private companies, it comes down to return on investment,” Dickison said. “In areas with low population density, that construction cost is typically high and becomes a bit more challenging for a company to realize a return on investment on that infrastructure.”
Rural areas can suffer because of providers’ financial decisions. Internet is essential for business, communication and education, and without a reliable connection, rural economic development can stagnate.
“These days, not having broadband is like not having electricity or water in your home,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, who represents the 2nd Congressional District. “It’s just that needed.”
Pocan helped launch the bipartisan Rural Broadband Caucus in Congress last year. Slow internet makes it harder for businesses to compete in an era where not having broadband is “almost as if you don’t exist,” he said.
DeLong, an agriculture company in Clinton, plans to install its own fiber optic cables after experiencing minor connectivity issues with Rise Broadband.
The current setup has occasionally hindered the company’s ability to communicate and do business, manager Doug Kloepping said.
Not every company can afford its own fiber optic system. But UW Extension programs say broadband is essential to a company’s growth potential and location choice, Kluz said.
“We’re just finding that there’s getting to be a different sort of haves and have-nots. There are opportunities that present themselves through the internet,” Kluz said. “When certain people have very, very slow service … it puts the kibosh on the work they can get done.”
State and federal funding sources have tried to spark more broadband development for several years. Internet providers can use that money to supplement their costs and install new infrastructure, Dickison said.
At the State Broadband Office, Gov. Scott Walker created an expansion grant program four years ago. A bill is circulating in the state Legislature to remove yearly grant limits and provide additional funding.
The grant program helps pay for new equipment and network upgrades to establish broadband connections in areas that need it, Dickison said.
Wisconsin also offers broadband certification that “puts out the welcome mat” for internet companies. Getting certified means a municipality has streamlined its permitting process and is ready for broadband—though no funding comes from being certified, she said.
Dickison hopes state investments will help make federal dollars go further. Through the federal Connect America Fund, Wisconsin will receive $570 million, the second-highest amount of money in the country behind California.
The Connect America Fund provides subsidies to three wired companies—AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier—that have agreed to serve rural areas throughout the country.
Of Wisconsin’s $570 million, $11.3 million will support Rock County developments, and $4.3 million will go to Walworth County, Dickison said.
“I would say by the end of 2020, we’ll see a great deal of the state covered by high-speed broadband access,” she said. “The future looks bright. I know for folks who don’t have broadband access today, the service can’t get here fast enough.”
Until then, rural communities must make do with the internet they have. At the Fulton Town Hall, Zimmerman said typical web speeds hover around 0.5 megabits per second.
The connection is slow but reliable, and it doesn’t prevent her from performing her duties as town clerk, she said.
When she checks land parcel records on the Rock County website, Zimmerman jokingly says she has time to get up and walk to the bathroom while the page is downloading. By the time she returns to her desk, the page is on her computer screen.
Zimmerman has been clerk since 2006 and has grown used to slow internet by now. In 11 years, she’s learned how to make it work.
“If I have a faster thing,” Zimmerman said, “maybe I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”