Putting the pieces together
The continued pursuit of broadband in the Northwoods
By Eileen Persike
The governor who said 2021 would be the year of broadband stopped in Rhinelander last week to talk about successes and gain input for future projects.
Community members representing libraries, schools, economic development and people who just want faster internet greeted Gov. Tony Evers in the city council chambers.
Broadband internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission, requires a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. Evers said during his administration, broadband was added to 387,000 homes in the state.
“We’re going to continue that work using whatever resources we have, such as the Biden infrastructure law and our plans to add significant resources for this,” Evers said. “Gotta make it happen.”
In the Northwoods, access to that FCC-defined broadband is rare.
“Eighty percent of households in rural Oneida County do not have access to what I would call broadband speeds above 25 Mbps,” Oneida County Economic Development Corporation Director Jeff Verdoorn told the governor. “That’s what we want to get after.”
A recently published Broadband Task Force Report states that since Evers took office in 2019, Wisconsin has “allocated or disbursed over $289 million toward expanding broadband.” That figure includes $125 million allocated last month and $105 million in federal funds the governor directed toward broadband expansion.
Oneida County and Bug Tussel Wireless received a $2,769,200 award from that May 2022 allocation, which requires a $6 million match. The project will build a 223.9-mile fiber ring in Oneida County, connecting 304 businesses and 5,771 residential locations.
Verdoorn said since 2014 Oneida County has received five grants, which were small based on money that was available, and put toward fixed wireless, or line-of-sight towers. With the new money, the county will be putting fiber into the ground.
“That’s almost $20 million we’re hoping to invest in Oneida County,” Verdoorn said. “We’re hoping to chip away at some of that 80%.”
Third-generation resort Minocqua owner Jenny Gibson said high-speed internet is vital to Black Cliffs Resort’s success.
“I couldn’t do my reservations this morning – I did get an email through, but how do you run a 13-cabin resort with people coming up from Chicago that expect to have the services they have,” Gibson said. “And I’m just trying to keep my business going.”
Describing the need for broadband in the Northwoods, former Rhinelander library director Kris Adams Wendt, now representing the Wisconsin Valley Library Service said the three Oneida County libraries have broadband connectivity through Badgernet, one of the largest state broadband networks in the United States.
“Libraries have become a green oasis in the middle of an internet desert in many parts of the state, including the Northwoods,” Adams Wendt said.
All three libraries regularly have people in their parking lots connecting to wi-fi all hours of the day and night, working, taking tele-health appointments, doing homework, taking online classes, accessing government services, to name some of the reasons people use broadband.
Evers said there was $40 million in his first budget for broadband.
“That is significantly more than ever before,” Evers said. “Now we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars and we’re reaching more people. We’ll get there.”
Pictured, Gov. Tony Evers, top, third from left, stopped in Rhinelander July 12 to discuss broadband expansion.