Access to broadband not just a rural problem

A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows lack of access to broadband internet isn’t just a rural problem.

It’s true that the percentage of residents without access to broadband is higher in the northern and rural parts of the state. However, some urbanized counties — Dane and Marathon, for example — have some of the highest numbers of residents without a high-speed internet connection in the state.

Broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload. However, the FCC is funding efforts to add connections with at least 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.

Using data from the FCC, report authors show three counties have over 18,000 people without access to 10/1 service: Marathon, Clark and St. Croix.

And seven counties have between 10,000 and 15,000 people without 10/1 service: Dane, Grant, Wood, Waupaca, Waushara, Oconto and Marinette.

By comparison, several rural counties are outperforming urban areas. Florence, Iron, Douglas and Bayfield counties — all in northern Wisconsin — have similar numbers of people without a 10/1 connection to urban counties in the southeastern part of the state.

“That is due in part, of course, to the much smaller populations in those Northwoods counties,” report authors noted.

Also, parts of rural Bayfield County have access to speeds that exceed the FCC’s 25/3 broadband standard. And the areas surrounding that county’s largest city, Washburn, are most likely to lack a 10/1 connection. To explain this phenomenon, report authors point to rural telephone cooperatives in Vernon, Iron and Bayfield counties that provide fast internet service.

“Meanwhile, some residents on the outskirts of larger cities miss out on service because they are caught between these urban and rural networks,” report authors said. “The impact on residents is far reaching, affecting everything from how they watch movies to whether they can work or start a business from home.”

Between December 2016 and June 2017, the number of Wisconsinites without a 10/1 internet connection fell from 386,900 to 241,100. That change was due in part to investments by private providers as well as state and federal government, according to the report.

Much of the recent federal funding for rural broadband has come through two agencies: the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the FCC.

The Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utility Service disbursed over $254 million in grants and $34 million in loans in Wisconsin between 2009 and 2016. In the same timeframe, the FCC’s Connect America Fund doled out $900 million in the state.

The state’s Broadband Grant Expansion Program was approved in 2013 as an add-on to federal dollars. Between then and June 2018, Wisconsin contributed $18 million for broadband projects, the report shows.

Report authors note that cooperatives and nonprofit utilities extended high-speed internet to customers with support from the above-mentioned federal programs and state grants, as well as by increasing prices for those customers.

They also say that most locations in the state without solid access are covered by investor-owned telecommunications companies, “so expanding service to these areas will have to be profitable or it is unlikely to happen.”

See the full report here:

–By Alex Moe