Better broadband coverage can create economic ‘highways’ in rural Wisconsin
Carl Ruedebusch is a veteran businessman who understands how high-speed Internet connections can make or break economic opportunity — depending on where you live in Wisconsin.
Ruedebusch owns a Madison development company that has built millions of square feet of commercial space over time, including parts of the Fitchburg Technology Campus and the TEC Center near Madison College on the city’s east side.
He also owns a small business incubator in the northern Wisconsin community of Manitowish Waters, which he leased for a song to the Vilas County Economic Development Corp. in 2013 to spur growth of companies and jobs near his “second” home.
In Madison, Ruedebusch sees young people flocking to jobs that somehow owe their existence to the Internet. In Vilas County, he worries that creative young people will flee if they can’t pursue “knowledge economy” careers in the north woods.
That’s why the latest Vilas County incubator, which is remodeled retail space on Hwy. 51 in Manitowish Waters, provides its tenants with wireless access to high-speed Internet and state-of-the-art video conferencing capabilities.
Unfortunately, that kind of bandwidth is the exception for much of rural Wisconsin. Lack of high-speed broadband is the rule.
Broadband is generally described as enough bandwidth, or high-speed Internet connectivity, to carry multiple voice, video, or data channels simultaneously. That can be accomplished through fiber optic lines or through wireless networks.
“So many businesses today are based on the Internet that if you’re a young person looking for a job in a place with poor broadband, you’ve probably got to leave town,” said Ruedebusch, who is helping to lead an effort to expand broadband coverage in Vilas County.
In addition to being a “brain drain” worry for rural Wisconsin, high-speed broadband is essential for the state’s tourism industry and is good public policy in general, says Ruedebusch, just as the interstate highway system and rural electrification were in past decades.
Wisconsin ranks below average among the 50 states when it comes to high-speed Internet access, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. A major reason for the state’s mediocre ranking is access in rural Wisconsin, where many telecom providers are trying to swap their historic commitment to landline service for investments in broadband.
Much like other communities across the United States, rural Wisconsin would benefit from enhanced broadband connections. Here are some reasons why:
- Broadband allows small businesses to expand their markets and customer bases to regional, national, and even international levels through greater use of online sales channels.
- It fosters opportunities for the creation of businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. economy.
- It enables hospitals and clinics to make better use of telemedicine. Examples include rapidly locating digital medical records and medical images that can be more easily transmitted to doctors or clinics in remote locations. This can save lives and improve health.
- It provides rural Wisconsin residents with greater access to higher education or continued education through “distance learning” systems. These systems themselves can become an export industry for Wisconsin, which has a strong “K-through-gray” education structure and companies engaged in educational software.
- It will enhance tourism. Wisconsin is a prime tourism destination, but some in the industry find themselves losing opportunities to book sales if their broadband service is slow or erratic. Tourists used to send postcards; today, they tweet, post on Facebook, or send an Instagram — and they want to stay connected, even if they’re on vacation.
- It will enhance public safety by allowing more rapid response to emergencies, whether those are medical emergencies, police calls, or events related to natural disasters.
Wisconsin telecom companies are working toward faster broadband coverage, but it’s often a matter of economics in counties where there are fewer people and a lot more territory to cover.
The state Public Service Commission and the affiliated LinkWISCONSIN initiative are engaged in mapping broadband coverage and speed, working with local and regional leaders, consumers, and providers. It’s also a priority in the Legislature, where the Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities, chaired by state Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, R-New Berlin, has taken an interest in rural broadband needs.
Advocates such as Ruedebusch realize Wisconsin can’t have ubiquitous broadband service overnight — or even next year. “It’s probably a 10-year process,” he concedes. But that process begins with setting realistic goals and forming partnerships that can help places such as Vilas County attract and keep business and talent.
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