Marathon Co. broadband perspectives heading to Washington D.C. after roundtable with Sen. Baldwin

Published: Jul. 9, 2021 at 5:45 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the bipartisan infrastructure framework agreement addressing massive broadband infrastructure gaps, but not before hearing from perspectives in Marathon County.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin met with nearly a dozen people from various professions and areas around Marathon County who have been working to bring better broadband access for years.

“But honestly, we have made very little progress in those 15 years,” John Robinson, a county supervisor said after listing numerous efforts the county had tried over the years. He said in Marathon County alone it would cost around $200 million to get broadband to every home.

The pandemic forced nearly everyone to confront the necessity and challenges of broadband access as students and professionals worked from home. Sen. Baldwin said this is the best opportunity to address these issues that especially impact rural areas.

“There’s no one who can claim ignorance right now of how serious the situation is and how needed the utility is,” she said.

She and the Marathon County residents present see internet and broadband as a utility and believe everyone not only should have access to but needs access to in today’s world as it impacts all aspects of life like health care, education, and business.

“In our nation’s history, we decided that everybody should have electricity and there was a rural electrification that got the last mile to every home in our state and across the country,” Sen. Baldwin stated. “We had the ambition to have an interstate highway system and we made the investments necessary to make that a reality. Today we have an opportunity to work together to make an investment in getting broadband in every household and we need to do that.”

The bipartisan infrastructure framework agreement will provide $65 billion to fill the gaps in broadband access around the country and address the layers of complexity obtaining internet access presents. That includes partnering with internet providers and ensuring that they hold up their end of the deal with taxpayer dollars.

“It’s apparent to me that there’s a lot of folks who aren’t being held to account and aren’t being good stewards of the, at least, the public dollars that are involved in this,” Sen. Baldwin said referring to the companies providing the access.

As 7 Investigates has previously reported, whether it is phone or internet access, companies have done some work to expand in rural Wisconsin, but have largely not delivered or left major gaps. Robinson noted that companies are looking for returns on investment and with smaller populations, they do not see the financial incentive to expand to some of the most rural areas.

Nearly 14% of people in Wisconsin live in areas that do not have the broadband infrastructure to provide the minimum acceptable speeds or even meet the definition of broadband. Melinda Osterberg with UW-Extention said they surveyed people living in rural areas about their broadband access and had a high response rate. She said nearly a third did not have access at all to the internet. For those that had it, a majority did not meet the level of service the Federal Communications Commission defines as having broadband.

“We had 28% of households were paying an excess of $80 a month and that’s for really terrible service, right,” she laughed.

Brad Gast with Northcentral Technical College said the expense of internet is a barrier for some of their students to continue going to school, saying that if they have an unexpected large expense, like car repairs, students often choose to quit their education because they cannot afford to pay the internet prices.

Chris Meyer from Marshfield Clinic and the former mayor of Marshfield says there are a lot of people who face issues with having technology that meets the ability for patients to access telehealth or whatever services they want to use. He added there is also research that shows the more access people have to health care, the longer people will stay healthy. He said in rural areas, telehealth has opened the door for people to be able to access health care more easily and more frequently.

“I didn’t have to rely on my adult child to take a day off of work to take me to Marshfield or Wausau. I didn’t have to take an unpaid day off of work because I don’t get PTO. I didn’t have to arrange for my kids to get picked up from school or somebody to watch them while I drove two hours to Marshfield to have a 15-minute visit with a doctor and then drive two more hours back home,” Meyers listed.

A major issue for local, state, and federal governments to make wise plans to increase broadband infrastructure is “there isn’t a single accurate map anywhere in this country that reflects who has access to what service,” Robinson said. Currently, providers are allowed to keep their information about their existing broadband infrastructure private.

“If you look at pipelines, we know where they are. If you look at transmission lines, you know where they are, but because of this way in which broadband has been deployed historically, we just don’t have that information and I think figuring out how to get it is going to be a key,” Sen. Baldwin urged.

With that, they urge people to answer surveys sent to residents asking about internet access and service to provide as accurate of a picture for coverage as possible, noting that each individual household has its own nuances.

Kat Becker, owner and operator of Cattails Organics, a farm in Athens explained she has to go into town for virtual business meetings. At home, she has several different types of internet services just to reach basic coverage needs. However, the more people and devices that are added, the more bandwidth is needed to ensure everyone can do what they need.

“Even though we have horrible access and these and these very insanely expensive overlapping systems in place just so we can have basic systems and run a business and have my kids in school, this year did show me some of the things that could be possible when that stuff was working,” she said.

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