By Art Lersch
Community Resources Development Educator, University of Wisconsin – Extension, Lincoln County
The effort to increase reasonably priced high speed Internet usage in rural areas is gaining momentum throughout the nation. Lincoln County, as many of you may have read in recent newspaper articles, is no exception. Citizens have voiced their strong desire to enter the information highway at more reliable and faster speeds. They recognize that increased communication and information gathering via the Internet is as necessary today as it was improving phone service throughout the 20th century. Societal demands and habits, not the least of which is our desire for quick, reliable answers, have driven and will continue to encourage the Internet explosion.
Some of this is also spurred on in Lincoln County by rural home-based business activities. In two recent town surveys, 21 people in Schley (11% of total returned surveys) and 48 people in Harrison (also about 11%) reported having a home-based business. Some of these businesses depend heavily on the Internet to advertise their services and sell products. If we continue to conduct such surveys, there is a strong chance that we will find that there are many other people working out of their homes and/or who have home based businesses in other parts of the county.
Since the Lincoln County Board during its June meeting overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating that county government would do everything it could to expand rural broadband offerings to every resident, much has happened. UW-Extension arranged a meeting between the county’s administrative coordinator, information technology director and Frontier’s engineering manager in central Wisconsin and national Midwest region Government Relations director. Besides reiterating that Frontier will use Connect America Funding (CAF) from the federal government to build fiber connections throughout rural Lincoln County, and stating that the build-out will likely begin in the spring of 2016 and end by late 2020, the Frontier officials indicated that they would like to present engineering plan information to the county sometime this fall. This initiative is moving fast.
In collaboration with UW-Extension, the Town of Harrison conducted a broadband survey. Completed surveys are still arriving at the Extension office, but preliminary results show about 45% were returned out of roughly 1,000 sent, an excellent response. Survey results to date reveal that nearly half of those saying they do not have Internet service indicted that they want it. Over 80% that have Internet service in the town report that they are not satisfied with it. Reasons for dissatisfaction vary. Almost 28% said they would stay longer in their seasonal homes if they had more/better Internet, with 22 people saying they would stay 30 or more days. A few even said that they would stay at least three months longer. Data from the Harrison survey, although preliminary because completed surveys are still trickling in, show that demand for broadband in the town is very high.
The potential economic impact of this is substantial. A recent five county survey that included Lincoln County indicated that part-time residents would stay on average 37 more days in their second homes if provided faster, more reliable Internet service. This would generate, the survey’s authors’ calculated, at least an additional $41 million dollars in spending within the five county area. (Source: Broadband and Vacation Properties in the Northwoods of Wisconsin: An Economic Impact Study, University of Wisconsin Whitewater, Russ Kashian, Department of Economics.) Data from the larger survey indicate that we can no longer afford not to have top notch Internet capabilities.
As the county moves forward with making the County Board’s resolution a reality, it seeks additional advice and collaboration from those interested in the goal of offering reliable, fast Internet service with ample bandwidth to everyone in the county that may want it. We have and will continue to meet with providers, town boards, and citizens to talk about broadband in Lincoln County. Patience will be important during this process. It will take time to build the infrastructure that is needed to meet the goal. But very good progress has been made and will continue to occur. For more information about this project or if you wish Extension to provide education to your civic group, town board, or other entity about the rural broadband issue, please contact Art Lersch at either Arthur.firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-539-1075.
By Art Lersch