Rural broadband a need not easily solved

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Monday, October 31, 2011
— History repeats itself.

In the early 1900s, the United States struggled with how to get electricity to farmers in areas that power companies deemed financially unfeasible.

Those same farms that stretch across rolling hills in western Rock County and throughout the state now seek the same high-speed Internet that some city dwellers take for granted.

“It’s very important for our economic development to have networks where entrepreneurs can reasonably have a network that can help them grow their business,” said Mickey Crittenden, director of information technology for Rock County. “And that’s a real challenge for our area, for some reason, to get that off the ground a little better.”

A state effort to map broadband access shows five or more broadband providers in most of central and eastern Rock County and Walworth County. But into the hillier areas of western Rock County and eastern Green County, broadband providers range from one to four in some areas, with Internet speeds also dropping.

The statewide project, LinkWISCONSIN, is addressing the state’s broadband priorities through a federal grant. The state Public Service Commission is overseeing the effort.

The definition of broadband varies depending on who you talk to, but LinkWISCONSIN uses the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s definition of a minimum 768 kilobits per second (Kbps) downstream speed, coupled with a minimum 200 Kbps upstream speed. That’s about 14 times faster than dial-up service.

Local coverage

Internet service providers have been using silos and other tall structures in the countryside to install equipment to provide fixed wireless coverage, Crittenden said. It seems to be a good model that works, he said.

“I think that’s how, at least in our county, it’s going to finally get deployed where everybody has a legitimate shot at getting some broadband,” Crittenden said. “And I think that’s the only route to go on the rural side.”

LiteWire started in 1999 in Evansville with the goal of delivering Internet service to rural customers, CFO Dave Mueller said. Its footprint has grown throughout southern Wisconsin, but this year the company has focused on upgrading its infrastructure, he said.

The company would like to reach all the rural residents in the area, but the large trees on rolling hills in places such as Avon Township make it “very difficult,” Mueller said. So many towers would be needed that the process would become cost prohibitive with current technology, he said.

In cities such as Janesville and Beloit, fiber optic infrastructure still provides the best option for the high concentration of network users, Crittenden said. But no company would ever recover its costs to install such an expensive network in sparsely populated areas, Mueller said.

Darlene Schnebbe wishes she could get on Charter Communications’ high-speed Internet service because its cable runs on power poles outside her house on Highway 14 between Evansville and Janesville. The company told her its service stops just down the road.

Schnebbe’s family switched from dial-up last year to LiteWire, but it still has faced challenges in running the farm business Schnebbe and her husband David operate, Sashay Acres. One of their daughters also is taking online college courses.

The family’s Internet often would fade out. After a couple equipment switches, the connection remains constant—but it’s still not as fast as what they’re paying for, she said. While the family sells its meats and produce at local farmers markets, “all our communications through our business are through the Internet,” she said. “We got rid of our fax machine. Everything is email.”

LiteWire will do everything it can to repair customers’ connections at no charge, Mueller said. Many things can cause outages, and sometimes it takes time to figure out what the reason is, he said.

The big issue for companies providing fixed wireless is TV white space—unlicensed frequencies available after the digital television conversion, Mueller said. Those frequencies are an opportunity to provide broadband to more remote rural areas because the waves can travel through obstructions such as trees.

But Mueller’s industry has been waiting and watching while the feds control the frequencies, and they’re worried legislators could tap it as a revenue source and auction them off to the highest bidders, he said.

“It would allow us to get to more rural customers than we can (now),” he said. “Frequencies we’re on now are not able to get through a lot of obstructions.”

The United States is falling farther behind its competitors, Crittenden said.

“In a global economy, you better have your act together in networking in order to compete,” he said. “Nations we’re competing against are making very significant taxpayer-based networks that provide much better connectivity than what Americans can expect today.”

Regional effort

Part of the LinkWISCONSIN effort includes regional teams around the state in various stages of development. The seven-county team that includes Rock and Green counties has been meeting since January, but has struggled with how to come up with one plan to move forward on, said Peter Jahn, a telecommunications analyst with the PSC.

Federal funds provided some initial assistance, but an organization or business is needed to lead the effort, he said.

“It works better if there’s a community group behind it,” he said.

The group has discussed inventorying who providers are, what options people have and looking at where the coverage gaps are, he said.

The group’s emphasis is on creating more access, said Deirdre Birmingham, who serves on the team as the voice of a rural business owner near Mineral Point.

She manages her apple orchard business through dial-up Internet, which results in her doing much of her web browsing at area libraries. She’s gotten close to getting Internet through satellite service—which costs at least six times as much as dial-up—but backs off after hearing complaints about speed and reliability.

With the group lacking outside leadership and struggling to find money to increase access, Birmingham admits the issue won’t be solved quickly.

“It’s going slower than the speed of the dial-up,” she joked.

BTC works to improve Internet access

Blackhawk Technical College plans to start looking at increasing Internet access for students in rural areas, said Sharon Kennedy, vice president for learning.

Some students can’t take online classes because of a lack of rural broadband access, she said.

“It really impedes their ability to be successful here, and certainly online classes are kind of a convenient way of taking instruction,” she said.

Some students are still on dial-up, and they can’t even load the college’s website, she said.

The goal is part of the technical college’s five-year strategic plan, which the college board approved last week. Details, including funding, have yet to be determined.

Ideally, students would have Internet in their homes, Kennedy said. If that’s not possible, BTC would see what kind of access would be available through rural libraries, she said.

The college wouldn’t be paying for Internet for students, but would work with equipment and technology. Kennedy said an example could be supplying the technology to the closest library that didn’t already have it.

A committee will start next month developing action plans.

Last updated: 6:36 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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