In the spring of 2020, as Covid-19 emerged as a threat, the schools where Heather and Zach Fjelstad worked as special education teachers went virtual. Like educators nationwide, the Fjelstads had to readjust their classroom practices to fit a computer screen, while keeping an eye on their infant and toddler. As they attempted to engage their students online, the couple, along with hundreds of thousands of other rural Wisconsin residents faced a familiar challenge – slow, unreliable, and often unaffordable internet.
Six years ago, when the couple moved to rural Ellsworth in western Wisconsin, poor internet access was “annoying, but … it was fine,” says Heather Fjelstad. Then, when the pandemic hit, “it was not doable.”
For a decade, rural Wisconsin’s lack of access to high-speed internet – or broadband – has received attention from lawmakers, including a $129 million investment in the recent state budget, and a multibillion-dollar investment in broadband expansion as part of the proposed $1.2 trillion bipartisan federal infrastructure bill.
Not waiting for Congress or the State Legislature to act, counties around Wisconsin are setting up their own member-based, internet-service cooperatives.
According to a 2020 survey by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), at least 410,000 Wisconsinites – overwhelmingly living in rural areas, but also low-income residents of urban areas – do not have access to a base level of broadband access, defined as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for shared use.
That translates to 7.1% of the state lacking broadband access, compared to a national average of 5.6% – and more than a quarter (26.7%) of residents of rural Wisconsin.
The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted this shortfall. As jobs and classrooms went virtual, according to state estimates, some 45,000 students lacked adequate broadband for remote schooling.
While families like the Fjelstads have some options to get online in an area where they have no cell phone service at home, they’re costly and unreliable. Heather says her family has tried everything possible, shelling out between $300 and $350 per month for satellite and fixed wireless connections that are still spotty. Bad weather can also cause the family to lose access. Heather says one storm this summer knocked out the internet for more than two weeks.
According to a November report from Forward Analytics, a nonpartisan, Wisconsin-based research firm, most rural Wisconsinites have access to internet speeds of only 10 Mbps – well below the recommended standard of 25 Mbps.
In a household with more than one device accessing the internet, the report says, 10 Mbps is insufficient for video conferences and real-time internet communication, and suffers from lags when web browsing. For households with multiple users working and schooling remotely, these barriers can make digital communication and accessing necessary online materials difficult and slow, if not essentially impossible.
Beyond the extraordinary circumstance of a pandemic, says Tessa Conroy, a professor of regional economic development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, broadband access corresponds with increased economic, educational and even health outcomes in rural communities.
In a January report she co-authored on the impact of broadband access on the Wisconsin economy, Conroy found that broadband access sparks population growth, improves educational success across grade levels, and correlates with better mental health. A 2020 report by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation also found that broadband access is critical to the state’s agricultural and tourism sectors, and it is a boon for rural entrepreneurship, according to Conroy.
“If we are wanting to support entrepreneurs, which I think a lot of places are--entrepreneurship is linked to job growth, income growth, poverty alleviation--then access to broadband could be part of that equation,” says Conroy.
Broadband access is an issue that Wisconsin leaders acknowledge. State lawmakers of both parties have introduced legislation over recent years to bridge the so-called “digital divide.”
A broadband grant program was founded in 2013 under Gov. Scott Walker ®, and awarded about $44 million over five years. During the pandemic, the amount of state investment has grown. In March of 2020, the state awarded $24 million in broadband expansion grants to tribal and municipal governments, and in October, the state used about $5 million in CARES Act funding for broadband projects.
Although recent state investment has been “significant,” it is hampered by restrictive state laws, says Steve Deller, an economic development specialist and professor of applied economics at UW-Madison. Deller, who worked with Conroy on the state broadband report, points to a Wisconsin statute that limits municipalities from forming taxpayer-funded broadband networks.
“On the one hand, the [state legislature] are trying to promote…investments, but on the other hand, they’re tying the hands of what local governments can do,” says Deller.
In June, Gov. Evers (D) declared 2021 the “year of broadband access,” committing $129 million to broadband expansion in the 2021-2023 biennial budget. The announcement came a year after Evers created the state’s Task Force on Broadband Access, which set a goal of connecting every Wisconsin household to highspeed internet by 2025.
That goal is unlikely, says Deller, in part because of rural Wisconsin’s complex geography – vast lake chains up north, and rugged uplands across the west – which makes building universal broadband infrastructure “ungodly prohibitive.”
If passed, however, the federal infrastructure bill could fill in some of those connectivity gaps. As written, it would provide $65 billion for both rural and low-income urban residents across the country to gain access to high-speed internet, of which $42.5 billion would be allocated to states to fund network development. A temporary program would also allocate $14.25 billion in subsidies for low-income Americans to purchase broadband.
The infrastructure bill marks the most significant investment in utility access since the electrification of rural America in the 1930s through the establishment of rural electric cooperatives. But providers must be incentivized to enter rural areas seen as insufficiently cost-effective, or else communities must develop innovative non-market approaches to funding broadband projects. And potential customers require outreach, education, and pricing models that suit their circumstances, experts say.
“It’s not as simple as ‘Build it and they will come,’” says Conroy. Any broadband strategy requires a two-pronged approach, she says: not only building physical infrastructure – laying fiber, constructing wireless towers, or installing cable or DSL lines, for example – but encouraging and promoting adoption of these services.
Some progressives also warn that the introduction of federal dollars could open the door for large telecom companies to rush into new, rural markets and create a monopoly without significantly expanding service, writes David Dayen in The American Prospect.
Deller echoes these fears. He says past attempts to subsidize broadband expansion have often ended with large internet service providers upgrading existing lines, rather than investing in new infrastructure in underserved communities.
“My concern is that there’s going to be so much money thrown at it at once that we may not be strategic in terms of how that money is being spent,” Deller says. “A lot of these rural communities…it could overwhelm them. I’m afraid some of the internet service providers will take advantage of the situation, and it’s just going to be a direct transfer to the service providers.”
Over the last school year, the Fjelstads developed a temporary solution to their internet problem. Zach commuted an hour and a half with their kids each day to work at his parents’ home in Bone Lake – another rural area. That solved the couple’s childcare concerns and meant Heather did not have to share the weak home connection while virtually meeting with students. Meanwhile, Heather contacted her state lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, and urged her township board to pass an ordinance in support of expanding broadband.
In July, the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce announced the launch of SwiftCurrent Connect, a member-owned cooperative fiber broadband provider in Pierce County as well as neighboring Pepin and St. Croix counties.
SwiftCurrent Connect is a project of Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services (PPCS), a rural electrical cooperative established in 1938 as part of the New Deal initiative to connect farmers to the electrical grid. In September, SwiftCurrent began their Ellsworth-area construction, aiming to reach 1,500 homes by the end of the year. Monthly costs would begin at around $70.
SwiftCurrent is years in the making. Broadband cooperatives depend on state and federal government grant support to cover the cost of installation and thereby allowing broadband coops to keep their rates low. Experts say that available government funding is insufficient, forcing cooperatives to expand incrementally with each grant.
PPCS President Nate Boettcher says it will take $32 million to provide broadband service to the entire area. “We’re aggressively going after public service grants, working with our local counties and townships boards to help provide funding for this,” says Boettcher at the company’s July groundbreaking. “And of course, putting in our own money to build out this infrastructure.”
It’s not unusual for communities to have to court providers. Rural areas may not seem enticing or cost-efficient, where potential customers are few and spread out, particularly when compared to the expense of installing new infrastructure.
“The nature of broadband is that these are very regional markets,” Conroy says, adding that more study is needed to understand how rural markets function, in order to preserve competition in the internet provision sector and ensure affordability.
In the meantime, Deller and Conroy’s team has written a policy brief that recommends affordable internet access be addressed both within and without the private sector. But, according to researchers, for some areas of rural Wisconsin with poor internet service, the creation of nonprofit, municipal and cooperative providers may be the best solution.
Another proposed solution is creating “anchor institutions,” as when a hospital, school or library is outfitted with the necessary infrastructure to expand access and provide WiFi hotspots for the community.
For Heather Fjelstad, overtures from Madison and Washington are hopeful, but come too late. She recently left education, a field she worked in for years, to take a more reliable job in sales.
In transitioning to a job with fewer remote needs, Heather joined the hundreds of thousands of Americans who changed careers amid the pandemic.
“Those circumstances of the pandemic changed our family life so much that something had to … give a little for us.”
Anya van Wagtendonk is a writer and editor based in Milwaukee.