7 Investigates: Rural Wisconsin Internet will likely cost $1 billion

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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) -- It will take spending upwards of 12 figures to provide rural Wisconsin areas with internet, a NewsChannel 7 Investigation revealed.

“A good estimate in the state of Wisconsin to make broadband available to all areas is something right under $1 billion,” Northwoods Broadband Coalition Founder Don Sidlowski said.

The issue is large expenses associated with building rural location’s infrastructure. Things like laying wires and building wireless point-to-point resources to make internet a reality for rural Wisconsin families who, right now, do not have the options.

Like mother of three young boys Shannon Genrich, who lives in rural Marathon County.

"It's really irritating. When it's so readily available for everybody, Genrich said" "Unless we tether off my phone. Use my phone as a mobile hotspot. It is nonexistent.”

That means, currently in the Genrich house, their cell phone 40 gigabyte data plan also functions as the only way they can receive internet for her to complete her 4-H work, her children to complete homework, and for the family to watch entertainment, like Netflix.

"There's three or four satellite companies out there. Their cost verses the amount of data doesn't make sense to us. We're better off using our phones," Genrich said.

Increasing broadband access depends on six pots of money to build the internet infrastructure: three federal, two state and, also, private company investments.

A 7 Investigates analysis shows, if state lawmakers approve all internet spending proposals during the 2017 budget year, combined with already available federal funds, there could potentially be up to $182 million private companies could tap into to help build that infrastructure.

By 2020, the year Gov. Scott Walker, R-WI, said he would to see broadband available to all who want it, the total amount of funding available will have grown to total more than $600 million.

"Increasing it around the state it's not only quality of life, education, and business, it becomes for tourist operations," Walker said as he announced a more than $200,000 Frontier Communication grant in September.

By the 2026 budget year, nearly $1 billion will have been invested in building rural Wisconsin internet.

However, those are only the public dollars. They do not account for the investments companies will also make, which is privately held information.

Because the plan is to spend so much public internet building money in such a short time, combined with the private investments, Sidlowski said it will not take a decade for most rural areas to have high speed internet.

"It feels to me we've made a good start and another five to six years we can fill in the gap," Sidlowski said.

In the short term there will be an influx of state dollars. The long-term internet building money, however, will come from two federal funds. In Wisconsin most of the money, $570 million, is coming from the Connect America Fund II, known as CAF two.

AT&T, Century Link and Frontier are splitting the federal dollars, over a six year time period ending in the year 2020, to eventually bring broadband to these 230,000 Wisconsin homes and businesses.

Frontier leaders, who are receiving $186 million of the $570 million to connect more than 76,000 Wisconsin locations, including most of Marathon County, declined an on-camera interview.

Instead their communications manager Christine Reap responded in a statement, calling rural broadband expansion, “extremely capital intensive."

Reap went onto say building rural internet infrastructure needs, "To be supported with government funding or through private-public partnerships to make these projects economical."

Pointing to Walker’s Frontier grant as an example.

Inside Shannon Genrich's house the internet race against data limits continues with her sons on her mind.

"They are probably the hardest part of all this. And you can't explain to a 4 and 6 year old that the internet isn't fast enough or that we don't have enough data. They don't comprehend it."

The Need For Speed
As broadband building continues across rural state areas, a speed question lingers in the background.

The Federal Communications Commission changed high-speed internet’s definition from 10 megabytes per second download speed to 25 Mbps download speed. According the FCC 2016 Broadband Progress Report, 43 percent of rural Wisconsin does not 25 Mbps download speed.

Therefore, federal officials say more than 40 percent of rural Wisconsin does not have broadband.

However, Bill Esback, who represents 70 Wisconsin broadband providers, as the executive director for the lobbying group Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association sees things differently.

“Millions of those Americans, including rural Americans, have access to high-speed internet access at speeds below the FCC definition of broadband,” Esback said.

In Wisconsin, when the previous 10 Mbps download speed is used, Esback said the industry feel it is more like 10 percent of rural Wisconsin does not have broadband access.

He is confident, however, with the federal funds being allocated, by the time CAFII money runs out in budget year 2022, most of rural Wisconsin will be covered.

Consumer advocate Chris Brantner, whose website cutcabletoday.com advises people how to cut cable in favor of using internet options says internet speed does not need to be as fast as some probably think.

“You're looking at per stream that you have 5 Mbps download speed,” Branter said. “If you have multiple people streaming in house you'll want to double or triple that depending. "

The Broadband Coalition’s Sidlowski said those in rural areas, unable to access internet should contact their local representative’s office to find out which pot of money your home or business is being serviced by and if there a date planned for service installation.