Unhappy about your internet service? Help is on its way to Oshkosh as more details emerge about network gaps

By Miles Maguire

If you are like most local residents, you are in need of better internet service and dissatisfied about your network speed.

Help is on the way.  

A combination of federal funding, state grant-making and private sector competition is pointing to a brighter future for broadband connections in the Oshkosh area. Improving service, closing the digital divide between the city and outlying towns, and addressing the issue of affordability are all part of the plan. 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Biden is scheduled to sign Monday, will provide Wisconsin with “a minimum allocation of $100 million to help provide broadband coverage across the state,” according to Gov. Evers.  Earlier this week Evers announced that $100 million in state funds for broadband expansion will be available starting Dec. 1.

Private companies are also promising more options in Oshkosh:

  • TDS Telecommunications is gearing up to offer super-fast fiber-optic service to 19,000 households in Oshkosh. 
  • On the south side of town, Northern Telephone and Data (NTD), the Oshkosh-based company that is headed by Council Member Bill Miller, is making use of a $200,000 grant from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission to extend fiber service into the grounds of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
  • On its website, Elon Musk’s satellite broadband service, Starlink, says it will be available in Oshkosh by the middle of next year.

Better service usually means bigger bills. But consumers may benefit from greater competition, and the government is pumping more money into subsidy programs to address affordability.

To be sure, supply chain shortages and even the local geography could keep the bright forecast from turning out to be true. But one reason for optimism about internet service improvements in the near future is the recent progress in overcoming a major historical obstacle to getting a better digital experience. 

That problem has been the way the government gathers information to determine where network upgrades are needed. The resulting data has been faulted by the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, for “lacking accuracy and overstating service.”

For example, “high speed” broadband is defined at a level that is far below the performance that is needed to make the most of popular applications such as video conferencing. Similarly the Federal Communications Commission considers broadband to be available in an entire census block even if only a single location there has access.

But steps have been taken to zero in on problem areas, and eye-opening information is now available about service quality and gaps in service in the Oshkosh area. In some cases successful interventions have served to close the digital divide. See these related articles:

“Broadband is no longer nice to have. It’s need to have,” said FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “To ensure that every household has the internet access necessary for success in the digital age, we need better ways to accurately measure where high-speed service has reached Americans and where it has not.”  

New North Inc.,  a regional economic development group, is working to do just that for its 18-county service area in Northeast Wisconsin. Using a federal grant, New North Inc. is wrapping up a survey that is designed to assess the local broadband infrastructure in hopes of triggering private sector investment and preparing local governments to apply for the gusher of grant money that is on its way. 

By the end of this year, or shortly after, Winnebago County should have in its hands a detailed plan based on survey results for how to develop the local infrastructure for high-speed internet access. That information will then be passed on to Oshkosh and other local municipalities.

Preliminary findings from the New North survey already show deep dissatisfaction with existing internet services in the area. For example, 84% of early respondents have said they need better internet, and 65% have said they are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their connection speeds.

By federal standards, Oshkosh does not qualify as an unserved or underserved area. That’s because multiple service providers, primarily AT&T and Spectrum, offer download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps). That number is a benchmark in federal law and regulation, but it is outdated and is not necessarily a good indication of satisfactory internet service given the explosive growth of devices and digital products.

“I like to talk about Little Broadband and Big Broadband,” said Andrew Cohill, president of Design Nine Inc., a Virginia firm that is working on the New North internet study and that has done similar work for Marathon County. 

“Little Broadband is everything below 100 meg up and down, and Big Broadband is 100 meg up and down,” Cohill said. “That really helps sort of clarify what people are talking about.”

The goal for New North, he said, “is really to get everyone on Big Broadband.” Little Broadband does allow for streaming videos, distance learning and Zoom conference calls, but only up to a point. 

Part of the reason, according to Cohill, is that cable and telephone service providers have figured out ways to push their download speeds at the expense of upload speeds, resulting in what he calls “asymmetric broadband.”

Within limits, that’s not necessarily a problem. But when uploads and downloads are going at different speeds, video conferencing for business and educational purposes doesn’t “work very well if you have two or three or four people in the house all trying to do this at the same time.”

The move to Big Broadband “is all about being able to work from home productively and being able to do remote learning productively,” Cohill said.

One of the challenges to improving internet connectivity is the lack of clarity about what alternatives are available and at what price, which is one of the issues New North hopes to address with its survey.  

Even before the survey results are in, improvements are coming to local infrastructure, said Barb LaMue, New North president. “We are seeing increased investment. Companies are realizing what they need to do.”

An example of such investment is the plan by TDS Telecommunications to build a fiber network in Oshkosh capable of 2,000 Mbps for both uploads and downloads. 

“Fiber services are top of the line,” said Missy Kellor, a TDS spokeswoman. “They’re what everyone wants and for good reason.” 

The company is still mapping out where its fiber will go in Oshkosh. But by “the end of January, residents will be able to go to TDSFiber.com, enter their address, and see more details about estimated launch timeframes for their neighborhood,” she said. Construction is scheduled to start in March. 

New North’s survey results can also be used to help local governments tap into a growing amount of state and federal grant dollars that are available for broadband. “I’m hoping to use the New North study as a way to learn more about the status of broadband in the city and if warranted, consider the option of a study for just the city or implement any recommendations,” said Kelly Nieforth, Oshkosh director of community development.

The situation is more complicated from a countywide perspective. “We don’t have great geography for straight lines at all,” said County Executive Jon Doemel. “We have a lot of waterways. We have a lot of creeks and rivers. We have a lot of marshes. It’s not as simple as just laying fiber down everywhere.”

Taking advantage of grant money, many local governments around the country have decided to invest in their own fiber networks. But Doemel is cool to this idea, partly because of supply chain issues that he says could affect the availability of connections from the main fiber to individual homes. 

He also isn’t sure the county wants to take on the responsibility of investing in and maintaining a network without getting the revenue from operating it. “We have to figure out a way to come together with private industry and with state- and federal-level government to help us figure out a solution.”

The upper northwest corner of the county is cut off by the Wolf River, so to get there by car a driver would have to go into Waupaca County and then circle back. “We have to look at ways we can bring broadband in from other other counties and partner with them regionally,” Doemel said. “That might help us to solve that.”

As important as availability is, the issue of affordability cannot be ignored. In some areas, internet service “is just something that is not reasonable,” said Tricia Rathermel, president of the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. “People may not be getting what they pay for, or it is an unrealistic amount to pay for a service like this.”

Details about the new federal infrastructure law are still emerging, but one thing it includes is a continuation, although at a lower level, of subsidies for low-income households to access internet service. 

“Access and affordability are really key to getting everyone online,” said Alyssa Kenney, the PSC’s state broadband and digital equity director.

She expects the state to develop a digital equity plan that will qualify Wisconsin to obtain additional federal funding for “digital inclusion and adoption.” This funding would cover programs to teach digital skills and provide tech support for low-income families.

These efforts will be “particularly focusing on groups of people who have maybe not been fully engaged in digital society,” Kenney said. Targets would include “older adults, or recent refugees or immigrants–any number of people in the state,” she said. “That’s exciting.”

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