Thanks to several cooperative and privately-owned communication firms, many of the least-populated and most rural areas of Wisconsin have recently received, or might soon have, broadband electronic services, although some of the load capacities are still lagging.
How that gap is being closed was the subject of a recent webinar promoted by the Wisconsin Farmers Union in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin-Extension Service and the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. Recent surveys indicated the farmers and rural residents, particularly in the north central and northwestern parts of the state, where the WFU has much of its membership, either did not have high-speed Internet services or had services with relatively low capacity.
Addressing some of those points was Andy Lewis, a broadband and economic development specialist with the Extension Service. He cited one survey that indicated 98 percent of Wisconsin urban area have broadband optic wire service while only 63 percent of the state's rural area does.
Calculated in another way, about 90 percent of Wisconsin's population has access to broadband wire services while another small segment depends on wireless service, and the remaining 3-4 percent of the population is not served in either way, Lewis said. High costs and low returns make broadband wire installation economically prohibitive in areas where there would be few users.
Although most of the state has access to either wired or wireless electronic services, the wired system offers many advantages, Lewis said. He noted that some of the areas being served with wire have only 3, 7 or 10 megabits of capacity compared to the ideal of 25 megabits.
A survey of Wisconsin's farmers conducted in 2013 found that 76 percent of them have a computer, 72 percent have an Internet connection and only 46 percent use a computer or online communication to carry out business transactions.
In terms of urban and all rural residents, Lewis indicated that 81 and 79 percent respectively use a computer; 96 and 88 percent have a cellphone; and 88 and 83 percent have an Internet connection. For ownership of smartphones, the percentages are 64 for urban residents and 43 for rural residents, he added.
Lewis said a new cooperative has been formed in Minnesota for the installation of broadband optic fiber cable, and in northwestern Wisconsin, the Norvado Telephone cooperative, which is based in Cable, is undertaking the installation of 300 miles of fiber optic wire.
Referring to a Link Wisconsin map, Lewis also mentioned the Cochrane, Mosaic, Tri-County, Citizens, Vernon and Siren telephone cooperatives or private firms as being fairly recent entrants in providing broadband services in their membership areas.
Webinar presenter Rod Olson, who is the chief executive officer of the Vernon Telephone Cooperative, pointed out that a $25 million project, now in its third year and scheduled for completion by the end of 2015, will provide broadband service to its entire coverage area.
The 7,000-member cooperative began installing fiber optic lines 15 years ago, achieving 100-percent coverage in the city of Viroqua in 2008, he said. Since then, the telecommunications demand by users in the rural areas led to a reversal in the pattern of new installations, which now start in rural areas and move toward the other communities in Vernon County.
In recent years, the cooperative's pattern of new installations has been guided by where upgrades were needed and has been geared toward population density, Olson said.
Starting in 2007, the privately-held Siren Telephone Company in Burnett County began replacing copper wire with fiber optic cable, according to general manager Sid Sherstad. He said the capacities have been enhanced to 10 and 20 megabits and to gigabits in some areas.
"We're installing by a demand basis," Sherstad said. A significant part of that demand is by owners of lake homes who come from Minnesota's Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, which are about 80 miles away, he added.
In Vilas County, SonicNet offers 3-, 5- and 7-megabit service for monthly fees of just under $60, $70 and $80, according to company representative Adam Holroyd. For the past seven years, it has worked closely with the towns and country government to locate towers for that service. The company also offers broadband services with capacities from 10 megabits to gigabits.
Livestock and crop monitoring, weather map access, global position system guidance for field operations, property security, inventory management, education and communication are among the many opportunities for agriculture, M-Power Consulting spokeswoman Lori Vergin told webinar listeners.
That list is only a starting point because there so are many ways to use broadband services, Vergin said. "The only limit is human imagination."
The connectivity that broadband provides can be used to keep the aged living in their homes much longer by helping with security and health services, by maintaining social ties and by offering the opportunity to participate indirectly in church services and to watch student performances from schools, she added.