• WisBusiness

Monday, January 9, 2012

Making the rural connections


By Thad Nation
If you live in certain areas of Wisconsin, the idea of not being able to pull out your smartphone, laptop or tablet and connect to the Internet seems antiquated. With broadband so accessible and so persuasive, why wouldn’t your device quickly search for and pick up the local broadband provider?

Take those same devices into certain, more rural areas of the state, and you’ll have a completely different answer as many Wisconsin communities still lack access to strong, reliable broadband.

Late in 2011, the Wisconsin Technology Council released a report, “Connecting rural Wisconsin: The economic necessity of broadband,” which shows that there is needed improvement in Wisconsin. According to the report, Wisconsin ranks low in specific, yet critical broadband categories when compared to other states. Wisconsin ranked 43rd out of 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories in the percentage of households with access to broadband at download speeds of greater than 3 mbps.

Even the Federal Communications Commission’s data support the need for improvement. The FCC issued a report in March 2011 that showed that while Wisconsin’s percentage of residential broadband connections at 2000 kbps was nearly 85 percent, that’s only better than 10 other states in the country.

So what are some ways that this issue can be addressed in Wisconsin? The WTC report suggests support of the National Wireless Initiative, a plan supported by President Obama that targets high-speed wireless service for 98 percent of Americans by 2016. Another option is to extend federal broadband grants to leverage private investment. A third focus, according to the report, should be on clearing up any regulatory barriers and avoiding the implementation of new ones.

A fourth way is through regulatory reform, which will reduce barriers to entry in rural communities by broadband providers. For example, the Federal Communications Commission has recommend reforming the Universal Service Fund, which was established in 1997 to help fund federal universal service. This fund, which is based on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, was established at a time when telecommunications technology started its rapid evolution. The current problem is that many of the services currently funded by the USF are based in traditional telecommunication services, not wireless or broadband services.

Regardless of how it is funded, there is a true need for increased broadband penetration in Wisconsin’s rural communities. From encouraging economic development to being a part of telemedicine services, broadband is no longer a luxury service.

Without improved broadband, Wisconsin is missing out on opportunities. According to the report, every $5 billion invested in broadband infrastructure directly creates 10,000 new jobs in the telecommunications and information technology industries alone, not to mention the opportunity it opens up for new startups or businesses considering Wisconsin as a place to relocate. Rural communities that have broadband access also offer high quality of life, an available workforce and prime land for development.

At Wired Wisconsin, we actually track these numbers even more closely in our online Broadband and Wireless Investment and Jobs Tracker, which can be found at http://www.wiredwisconsin.org/investment-map/. During the first quarter of tracking, from June through September of 2011, 12 projects were deployed around Wisconsin, resulting in a total estimated investment of $12.08 million dollars and the creation of 604 jobs. That number will continue to grow as more investment continues in Wisconsin.

We also know that even a slight increase in broadband access can result in a large boost for Wisconsin. A Connected Nation Study projects that a seven-percent increase in broadband access in Wisconsin would result in $2.6 billion in economic impact.

Why would we not pursue this? We’ve identified the need, we know the end result and now is the time to do what we can as a state to encourage broadband expansion.

The Wisconsin Technology Council’s report can be read in its entirety at: http://tinyurl.com/7s6luhb.

-- Nation is executive director of Wired Wisconsin, the Wisconsin-based project of Midwest Consumers for Choice and Competition (MCCC), a non-profit organization of individual consumers interested in technology, broadband, and telecommunication issues with state projects throughout the Midwest region.

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