Rural areas in need of better Internet connections
February 9, 2021
During this pandemic, a record number of people find themselves working from home. Thousands of Wisconsin students are learning from home via the Internet. But if you’re working or learning from home in a rural area in Wisconsin, you may find your connection to the Internet lacking.
“Wisconsin has a major problem with broadband Internet infrastructure and its availability in rural communities,” Beth Wendt, UW-Madison senior IS specialist and Service Team leader, told Wisconsin Public Radio’s Larry Meiller on Feb. 8.
Wendt explained that a program to help rural folks reliably connect to the Internet once existed through the University of Wisconsin. It ended with the implementation of Act 10 a decade ago. That means quality connections now rest in the hands of private Internet service providers, who rarely find it worth their while to install fiber optic connections in rural areas. It simply does not pay them enough to offset their initial investment.
So rural Wisconsinites often find themselves stuck. A middle-school science teacher who called into Meiller’s WPR program described resorting to sitting in a coffee shop parking lot for hours to gain a reliable Internet connection in order to teach her students.
Counties such as Door County have struggled to attract Internet service providers for years. According to NBC26, some areas of Door County have no reliable Internet service. This doesn’t only impact working and learning from home, but also businesses.
“We have a lot of remote workers in Door County,” said Steve Jenkins, the executive director of the Door County Economic Development Corporation. “And we could have more if we had better broadband service.”
Door County businesses seeking to attract new hires often find them reluctant to make the move to the rural county.
“We have a lot of interest… and then they come to the area and fall in love,” Door County Medical Center CIO Erick Schrier told NBC26. “And then they look at purchasing a home and they find out they cannot get high-speed Internet at that location.”
He explained that many new hires will instead move to Sturgeon Bay or Green Bay, where they can take advantage of broadband service.
In many spots around the state, people have turned to satellite Internet providers. Unfortunately, satellite connections are not always reliable and, according to Wendt, run about $100 per month to subscribe.
But that may be about to change. According to Door County Daily News, parts of Door County have already begun to beta test Elon Musk’s potential satellite Internet service, called Starlink. It should be more reliable than traditional satellite Internet connections because it uses thousands of satellites in low orbit around Earth. Users are connected through their own units. Wendt said it will probably cost users about $100 per month.
According to Quantum PC Owner Nathan Drager, some Starlink beta testers in West Jacksonport and Clark’s Lake have already seen great results. He suggests Starlink could be a game-changer for areas with poor Internet coverage.
Meanwhile, broadband service in Door County may improve in the future. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission recently awarded Internet service providers $303,000 to strengthen broadband service. Door County Broadband received $65,282 of that, according to Door County Daily News. The public will benefit soon from free Wi-Fi service in Egg Harbor when Nsight Teleservices connects existing fiber services to Mesh Wi-Fi equipment on poles to the village. It received a grant of $48,960 to do this.
And what about that teacher stuck in a parking lot for reliable Internet service? Wendt had a bit of advice for her: Cellular hot spots may be a way to get around a slow Internet connection.
That is, if you have a strong cellular connection.