In the eye of the rural broadband storm part 1

This is the first story in a series examining the current state of broadband Internet access in Northwest Wisconsin

storm cloud landscape

Danielle Danford | Staff writer

NORTHWESTERN WISCONSIN— Having an Internet connection is increasingly important for people to apply for jobs, communicate, educate and to purchase goods.

Despite its increasing presence and importance in the workings of society, Internet service remains poor or nonexistent outside more populated communities in northern Wisconsin.

“The trend definitely is you need Internet,” said Angela Bodzislaw, Spooner Memorial Library director. “To be ahead of the game, to be with the game even, you need Internet to get good jobs.”

Public libraries are one of the only places people in rural areas can go to get free public Internet access. Simple tasks like returning an item often require people to print out a return slip. A simple enough task that becomes difficult without a computer, an Internet connection, a printer and an email address.

“Libraries’ roles are changing. We are not just books, we are not just reference, we are also civic agents offering literacy and a safe place,” said Bodzislaw.

Angela Bodizslaw, director of the Spooner Library

Outside of more populated areas like Balsam Lake, Siren or Spooner, rural residents are often left with poor Internet connections and costly bills or no service at all.

Many older adults are without

The Pew Research Center has found that people without Internet access disproportionately older-age adults living in rural areas. Burnett, Polk and Washburn counties fit the U.S. Census definition of rural. One Pew Research survey found that 58 percent of adults who do not use the Internet are older than 50 and most people living in Burnett and Washburn counties are age 65 and over.

While living in a rural area does not necessarily mean there is poor Internet access, sparsely populated areas are not as appealing to Internet service providers. who foot the often-costly construction bills to extend or improve Internet services. In most rural areas Internet service is transmitted through existing copper telephone lines but this only works well over short distances as the signal loses strength the farther it must travel. For rural users, this means significantly slower Internet.

ISPs have gone on record saying it is too costly for them to extend or increase service to sparsely populated areas of Wisconsin because the costs of the materials and labor are too high and there are not enough people to justify the cost.

Internet service is advertised by providers based on how fast their connection can send and receive data. This is described by the acronym Mbps, which stands for Megabits Per Second. Generally, the more Mbps a connection is, the faster it is. The graphic above shows four different internet speeds. 5 Mbps works for browsing websites, while 25 Mbps is the FCC definition of broadband internet, which is suitable for video streaming. The two fastest internet connections shown allow users to send and receive even more data, suitable for multiple online user scenarios. – Special graphic

Geographical gap

Polk County Sheriff Peter Johnson discovered northwestern Wisconsin’s geographical gap in Internet access when he found out the lake home he and his wife had purchased could only receive a dial-up connection. Johnson was at first surprised, as the home is less than two miles from Balsam Lake in Polk County, the county seat.

Peter Johnson, Polk County Sheriff

“We probably have people within a half mile of us that have fine Internet service but it’s just where we were, we didn’t have an option, or at least a usable option,” said Johnson. After assessing their situation, he found that their location had everything to do with their lack of Internet.

“I know living on a lake, on a dead-end road that has mostly seasonal residents, isn’t a lot of incentive for them (ISPs) to invest money to put cable or fiber in unless everybody signs up, and most don’t,” said Johnson.

Both Johnson and his wife needed the Internet connection to complete their graduate studies, which included course work and lectures done online. To view the video lectures over the Internet they needed a more capable connection. Their search for Internet brought them to consider satellite Internet and cellular data as alternative options to a wired connection.

“Nobody was really recommending satellite Internet and all the horror stories you’d hear about their customer service and the stuff doesn’t work half the time anyway. That just isn’t an option really when you’re trying to go to school,” said Johnson.

The Johnsons also found the cost of satellite Internet service prohibitive and the contracts included data caps, which limited the amount of Internet they could use.

In the end, they went with cellular data, but their existing cell-phone bill took a hit by adding the additional data. In 2016, their cell-phone provider began offering “unlimited data plans” which is what they currently use. It should be noted that their plan is technically not unlimited as there is a cap on how much data they can use. When that cap is met the ISP down speeds connections based on the region and the tower in use.

Cost is the main factor

These plans come at a cost though, which research shows disproportionately affects Americans making less than $30,000 per year. These people are about eight times more likely to not use the Internet.

A 2015 study that found 43 percent of non-Internet users said the monthly subscription cost was the biggest reason for not having it. The median income in each of Burnett, Polk and Washburn counties is above $40,000, however, each of these counties have poverty levels above 11 percent.

Examining the advertised cost of Internet service in the county seat communities in Burnett, Polk and Washburn counties shows just how inconsistent ISPs are in charging for Internet access. The fee these ISPs charge, for the same-speed Internet connection, ranges from $45 to $70 depending on the ISP and location. What’s more, the least expensive ISP doubles the cost of their service after one year of an introductory price.

This graphic shows the advertised cost of Internet service for a certain speed from Internet service providers that serve select areas in Burnett, Polk and Washburn counties. Please note that certain speeds are only available in specific areas. Besides showing how inconsistent pricing is for similar Internet speeds the graphic shows how the cost of Internet service can limit its access.


Read part 2 here.

Read part 3 here.



  1. Interesting article. Nothing surprised us as we fall in the ‘we have service but it’s not very good’ category. We are 6 miles, as a crow would fly, from the Washburn County Seat. I understand it is expensive for providers to install equipment thus allowing for faster internet. However, I am certain a provider could recover costs over a period of years. There were phone lines installed before we ever built our home !

  2. Here is a link to an article about Centurylink getting 330 million dollars for upgrading rural Wisconsin Inet service. I hope Ms. Danford in a future article can find out where Centurylink is currently upgrading and perhaps a schedule of when they are coming to Washburn, Burnett and Polk. Centurylink is extremely vague on any details on progress made in Wisconsin.

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