Danielle Danford | Staff Writer
NORTHWESTERN WISCONSIN— Reliable high-speed Internet access for rural residents faces many challenges. The geography of an area and its residents impact decisions by Internet service providers on where they expand or increase Internet service. The cost of Internet service for consumers also plays a role in who can access it, even when it is physically available. Where Internet service is available, its quality and affordability is determined by ISPs.
To help spur the investment of broadband Internet access in high-cost rural areas, the state of Wisconsin and the federal government have been funding broadband expansion projects. Federal funds are available through the Federal Communications Commissions Connect America Fund II program.
“These are high-cost markets with many deployment challenges. The Connect America Fund, along with our significant capital investments over the years, help make deploying rural broadband more cost effective,” said John Jones, a representative of CenturyLink, in a press release.
The Federal Communications Commission offers subsidies to ISPs through the CAF II program to upgrade their networks in FCC designated high-cost census blocks to bring at least 10 Mbps Internet connection speeds.
For Wisconsin, the FCC allocated $570 million to three ISPs to expand Internet service in rural high-cost areas, with a goal of reaching 230,000 households by 2020.
Companies that will receive CAF II money for projects in Wisconsin include CenturyLink Inc., Frontier Communications and AT&T. CenturyLink will receive $330 million for projects aimed at reaching about 129,000 households. Frontier will get $186 million for 76,000 households and AT&T will receive $54 million for 24,000 households. More specific information on where these projects will provide upgraded or extended Internet access is only available in a map online. The portions of this map that show Burnett, Polk and Washburn counties are shown below.
CenturyLink is listed for projects in Burnett and Washburn counties. Polk County has CenturyLink and Frontier Communications listed with projects.
Polk County CAF II projects are listed with 3,667 eligible connected locations, which is funded by $1.259 million a year. CAF II projects in Burnett County are funded by $1.72 million a year for 5,155 eligible connected locations. Washburn County has 5,606 eligible connected locations funded by $2.12 million a year.
The state of Wisconsin has also put money into increasing Internet investment. This funding is offered through the broadband expansion grant program, which provides reimbursement for equipment and construction expenses incurred by Internet service providers that extend or improve broadband service in underserved areas of the state.
The 2015-17 state budget increased the funding for grants meant to extend broadband to underserved areas, from $500,000 to $1,500,000 annually. The projects that were ultimately selected for state grant awards show a similar trend. Most of the projects were applied for by a local unit of government and an ISP.
According to Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin Telecommunications Association, this is no coincidence. Esbeck believes the existence of a public-private partnership on state grant applications is a component of the review process.
“The partnership that’s created through this grant program encourages discussions on a local level, so
there’s that buy-in and that’s a component of what is very desirable in terms of some of the investments that are being made,” said Esbeck, who noted that the desirability of these public-private partnerships in broadband investment projects goes all the way to Gov. Scott Walker.
“He focuses on the fact that at the end of the day the state can provide some of the seed money, but through these partnerships the role of the state ends with the seed money and it’s the private sector provider offering the service,” said Esbeck.
Burnett County project
In the last state grant cycle one project was funded in Burnett County. That $150,000 grant was awarded to Sirentel in 2016 to help fund a fiber-to-the-home project that was planned to reach 310 homes in the village of Webster. The entire project was estimated to cost $928,854.
“I think the project so far has been successful,” said Sid Sherstad, general manager of Sirentel. The project was built last summer with customers receiving increased Internet speeds last fall and winter. “There are so many people out there that want to be able to work from their homes, or spend four-day weekends at their lake home but are unable to now (due to the lack of Internet access),” said Sherstad. According to Sherstad, before the project, residents in that area had inadequate Internet access.
“In some cases, they had less than 1 Mbps,” he said. After the project those residents can now access 20 Mbps. Even with the project complete the need for expanding better Internet access is apparent to the company.
“As we go to Webster we have people that are just a mile out of Webster that are begging for service,” said Sherstad.
Sherstad said he plans to apply again to the same grant program in its next cycle to continue to build out fiber-optic networks around Yellow Lake, Devils Lake, Johnson Lake and North Sand Lake.
In the history of this state grant program no projects in Washburn County or Polk County have been funded. Some of the disconnect in project funding for northwestern Wisconsin is, according to the owners of Siren-based Internet service provider Starwire Technologies, that these grant programs are out of reach except for large companies.
“The regulations and the hoops, the red tape you have to get through to get that funding is not made for this area, it is for larger areas with larger phone companies that have the resources already to get that funding,” said Sara McLain, co-owner of Starwire Technologies.
Esbeck contends that Wisconsin’s grant program process is easier to navigate than those of other states that are also funding broadband expansion.
“I think it is incredibly important that we have certain standards that the Public Service Commission wants to see adhered to for these grant dollars,” said Esbeck.
Part of the disconnect could be that Starwire is not a traditional ISP. Most ISPs are former and current telephone companies that have an existing relationship with the state. McLain and Joe Cremin started Starwire
10 years ago after hearing that many residents in Burnett County were interested in an alternative ISP.
Starwire provides Internet via a tower installed on a user’s property. This tower supplies Internet to a router in a home or business.
“It’s basically similar to how cell phones get Internet. The difference is instead of having a mobile device the Internet connects to a fixed antenna at the customer’s location,” said Cremin.
Looking to the future, McLain and Cremin know expanding their service area is a reasonable goal; however, they don’t plan on applying for most of the funding opportunities for it because of the requirements of certain grant applications. “The problem is the lack of reality of what it’s like in these areas and what kinds of companies are going to be the ones to actually fix the problem,” said Cremin.
Esbeck explained that at the federal level, he isn’t aware of any grant programs Starwire would even be eligible for.
“Because this company was not a traditional dial tone provider, they’re not eligible for the funds … due to the path that the FCC has chosen,” said Esbeck. He explained that federal telecommunications law likely constrains the FCC on how those funds can be used and the level of regulation traditional ISPs already undergo make them a safer bet to install federally funded projects.
For McLain and Cremin it’s more than talking about the problem or the solution, it’s about acting to make change.
“Try to come together as a community to get service,” said Cremin, speaking from personal experience. Starwire was made aware of Internet service needs in Clam Falls by community members that came together. Due to their outreach, Starwire focused on providing services to Clam Falls.
“They weren’t afraid to go to the county to talk to the board and try to change things,” said Cremin.
Broadband forward community
According to the state Public Service Commission, one of the ways a community can show it wants better Internet service is to become a Broadband Forward Community.
To become a BFC, the local unit of government, regardless of size, must adopt an ordinance that establishes an efficient process for the application, approval and issuance of broadband network-related permits for that area. The ordinance is then sent to the Public Service Commission for confirmation.
“Those requirements are a signal to private sector providers that the welcome mat has been laid out for additional broadband investment,” said Esbeck. According to Esbeck, the designation generated conversations with ISPs for some communities in northern Wisconsin.
On the flip side, Esbeck shared that some communities have seen million-dollar broadband investment projects as an opportunity to generate revenue through their permitting process. “That’s really counterproductive when we’re talking about something like broadband investment. We want to partner with local governments, we want to encourage that partnership and that mindset that this is something that creates a win-win,” said Esbeck.
The PSC recognizes that the Town of Clam Falls is a BFC. However, the Burnett, Polk and Washburn county boards have not addressed the BFC designation. For the future of communities large and small in northern Wisconsin, affordable high-speed Internet access is more than a talking point. It is part of how they could remain economically viable into the future, but not without the investment of state leaders, community members, local government and local ISPs. In the end it is important to remember that for every story or anecdote about bad Internet service there are people working on the issue of rural Internet access, which has many moving pieces and is a work in progress. Moving beyond this article, discussions on the status of Internet access by local units of government could open the door to new opportunities, like the state BFC designation and future ISP broadband investment, which is the hope for many residents of northern Wisconsin.