Nearly a quarter of rural Wisconsin households lack access to broadband internet, and although some gains have been made in recent years, analysts say upgrading connections to remaining locales represents the costliest phase of infrastructure investment.
A new report released by Forward Analytics, the research arm of Wisconsin Counties Association, draws attention to the continued gaps in access to broadband internet, defined by the Federal Communications Commission as a connection with a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 megabits per second.
“To some degree, the easiest stuff has been done,” said Director Dale Knapp. “We’re now in places where the geography is not conducive to some of the broadband or the density is really sparse, so economically … it’s less viable.”
An estimated 36% of Crawford County residents, 21% of Grant County residents, 16% of Iowa County residents and 29% of Lafayette County residents lack broadband access, according to the report. The figures reflect improvements in access of 26 to 33 percentage points since 2016.
However, the data can overestimate the percentage of households with access to broadband because the FCC reports figures at the U.S. Census block level.
If any household within a block has access, the FCC considers the entire block as one with access, but in rural areas, a block can span several square miles.
Local governments can fill a needed role by drawing attention to underserved areas and assisting service providers as they seek state or federal grants, the report said.
The state has taken steps to encourage broadband development, including the annual distribution of grant dollars to expansion projects and implementing in 2019 a tax break on property used to provide broadband service to rural or underserved areas.
The most reliable source of broadband — fiber-optic wiring — also is the most expensive to install. Only 20% of rural residents with access to broadband receive it through fiber, while the rest rely on cable, phone service or fixed wireless connections through cellular towers, which do not consistently offer their advertised connection speeds.
Bill Mitchell, a resident of rural Ellenboro in Grant County, relies heavily on the internet to run his design firm and art studio.
Sometimes his internet connection, which he obtains through a copper phone wire, runs smoothly, but at times he can barely open his email, necessitating a trip to a nearby community.
A lack of broadband also inhibits rural entrepreneurship, said Ron Brisbois, executive director of the Grant County Economic Development Corp.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the increasing demand for high-speed internet, not just for teleworkers, but students who attend school virtually.
Amid the bluffs and farmland that surround the Cassville School District, some struggle to find or afford internet connections, said Superintendent John Luster.
“It is a strain, especially the longer that we’re involved with this pandemic,” he said.
The district has provided mobile hotspots to families that need them.
Website of source