• WisBusiness

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

At economic development summit, spotlight on rural broadband to create jobs


By Brian Rybarik
On Wednesday, the Public Service Commission will participate in a forum entitled "Broadband Mapping, Planning and Deployment for Rural Economic Development in Wisconsin," which will be showcased at the Governor's Northern Wisconsin Economic Summit in Minocqua.

The Summit is meant to stimulate discussion of key issues specific to northern Wisconsin including growing the economy, jobs and workforce development, technology, and small business development.

The mission of the Summit makes the discussion of rural broadband expansion all the more relevant. In order to help the private sector create jobs by extending high-speed internet to businesses and homes across Northern Wisconsin, it will take continued education, public-private partnerships, and targeted, cost-effective investments.

There are a variety of methods to measure the availability of broadband in any area, and I caution the reliance on any one method. However, the U.S. National Telecommunications Information Administration estimates that 79% of Wisconsin residents currently have access to the Internet, with 64% having access to broadband services. Their report identified that Wisconsin ranks 17th in the percentage of households using broadband. While we can look at these numbers in different ways, I believe that Wisconsin is heading in the right direction, and Northern Wisconsin presents some important opportunities and challenges.

Northern Wisconsin is a land of abundant opportunity since it is a great place to live, work and play. It is a region of inherent, natural beauty, but it also presents some particular challenges with respect to broadband because of the size and population density. These factors mean that significant investment is needed to reach the more sparsely populated areas of our state.

To help bridge the gap between these opportunities and challenges, the Public Service Commission has developed a broadband mapping and planning project called LinkWISCONSIN. LinkWISCONSIN started with the development of an interactive map, which is now available at the LinkWISCONSIN website: www.linkwisconsin.org. Using data from broadband providers, the map shows the availability of broadband services throughout the state and provides contact information for the providers. The map has many benefits. It can be used by consumers to find broadband providers in their area and broadband providers can easily find places where entry into the market might make the most sense.

The LinkWISCONSIN project also involves the facilitation of broadband planning through nine regional planning teams.

The teams bring together local representatives with backgrounds in the local industries that rely heavily on broadband including health care, education, energy, tourism and agriculture. Other local leaders participate as well as broadband providers (which are non-voting members). The teams have worked to validate the mapping information, identify broadband investment priorities for that region and to identify the strategies, data, resources and leadership needed to implement the broadband expansion plans.

This work is intended to prioritize potential investment. Keeping in mind the substantial investment that is necessary, the regional teams provide a forum and process to identify the most pressing needs so that investment can flow to projects that have a business case and local buy-in behind them. In today's economy, every major investment needs significant justification. The regional teams are helping to build the case for the priorities throughout Wisconsin.

As we all work together to create new jobs and facilitate business growth in Wisconsin, identifying targets for broadband deployment and investment is a good place to start. I look forward to a continuing discussion of these issues at the Governor's Northern Wisconsin Economic Summit.

-- Rybarik is the administrator for the telecommunications division at the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin. For more information about the Governor's Northern Wisconsin Economic Summit, visit http://www.northwoodssummit.com/.

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