Brandon: Rural broadband access could be key to economic development
By Brian E. Clark
If rural Wisconsin is going to lure any call centers and high-tech jobs away from India or other countries in Asia -- something Zach Brandon says is possible – then it's going to need much better access to broadband coverage.
The same is true if Wisconsin wants to keep luring busy vacationers to the state, help small, rural businesses reach customers and enable hospitals and clinics located outside urban centers make better use of tele-medicine, said Brandon, head of the Wisconsin Angel Network and a former deputy secretary at the old state Commerce Department.
Enhanced broadband will also aid in the creation of rural businesses dealing with information technology, one of the fastest-growing segments of the economy, and provide non-urban Wisconsin residents with greater access to higher education or continued education through "distance learning" systems, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Technology Council.
Brandon, one of the report's authors, said it emphasizes how critical high-speed broadband is for the entire state's economic development.
"This is key to rural Wisconsin's economic growth, not just for the areas that are already well-built out," he said. In the report, broadband is defined as enough bandwidth to carry multiple voice, video or data channels simultaneously.
He said one of the things he learned as he began researching broadband is how important it is to the state's agricultural economy and how well connected many farmers already are.
But he said Wisconsin needs to be able to pursue so-called "farmshoring" projects in which companies that had located call centers and other efforts abroad are now beginning to locate them in rural America.
"To do that, you need to have access to broadband services," he said.
Several years ago, two major IT firms, CGI-AMS and Northrop-Grumman, announced they were bringing more than 700 technology jobs -- paying around $50,000 a year -- to rural Virginia. The move was made possible by heavy investment in broadband infrastructure by the state and federal governments.
According to Boston-based Global Insight, other technology companies are also putting high-level programming and data-crunching jobs in rural America towns with less traffic and lower rents to cut costs and remove the legal entanglements, cross-cultural difficulties and time-zone problems that come with overseas outsourcing.
Without improvement, Brandon said Wisconsin's travel industry could be hurt by the lack of high-speed internet.
"Broadband affects outlying communities that are highly dependent on the services and the dollars that revolve around the economy of tourism."
Though many travelers say they want to get away from it all when they go on vacation, Brandon said studies shows the majority want to stay connected to the outside world whether it's for business or to post vacation photos on Facebook.
"No one sends postcards anymore," he said. "So making sure people have access to the (electronic) services they want is important to economic development in the state."
Brandon said he was shocked that to learn that 664,000 people in Wisconsin do not have access to high-speed internet.
He also said he found "pretty scary" a report from the federal National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which put Wisconsin 43rd among states for high-speed Internet access.
That's at odds with comments from officials at the state Public Service Commission. According to the PSC, more than 80 percent of the state's residents have access to broadband internet.
Brandon said Wisconsin leaders' goal of being one of the top 10 states in the country for job creation will be held back by lack of rural broadband.
As for the PSC figures, Brandon said it depends on how you "skew the numbers."
"We know that a good portion of the state's population lives in urban areas," he said. "So you can say a large portion of the population has access to broadband.
"And there is also some debate over what broadband means and what speed that is. The FCC says it is 3 to 4MBPS (megabytes per second). Others might use a lower number (and get) higher access numbers."
Brandon said public and private entities should be working together to have 99 percent of the state covered with broadband.
"The goal shouldn't be that everyone in Milwaukee County and Waukesha County and Dane County and Brown County has access. That will skew the numbers.
"You have to make sure Vilas County and Oneida County and Door County also have access if you want to have a well-developed rural economic development infrastructure that allows for job creation."
Brandon said one of the key tests for economic development is whether products or services from one area can be exported outside their county or state. In the future, he said, that will be more dependent on broadband.
"One of the ways to turn main street businesses into exporters is to provide them access to the internet and high speed broadband," he said. "Having a global economy and the global ability to purchase is an important infrastructure need."
Brandon lauded a recent decision by a Dane County judge that permits the University of Wisconsin to use a $32 million federal grant to expand broadband in Platteville, Wausau, the Chippewa Valley and Superior.
But he said private telecommunications companies, the university and other public agencies should work together on future projects.
"In order for Wisconsin to compete, both on the economic and technological level, we have to make sure this is an all-hands-on-deck endeavor," he said.
"That means it's public and private, it's large and small and it's fiber. Every one of those aspects has to work together in order to drive penetration into the rural areas."