By Renee Torzala, Vice President of Marketing & Investor Relations, New North Inc.
Jason Breaker knew that there were some internet connection gaps in his rural community of Markesan, WI, but after the Covid-19 pandemic closed schools and businesses, he realized internet access was severely limited. As the Elementary Principal and District Administrator for the Markesan Public School District, Breaker discovered that many students were unable to attend school virtually.
“During the pandemic, we realized internet access for many of our families was terrible. We did offer hot spots to some, but even those didn’t work. There is a misperception that having good internet is related to income, but the reality is there just isn’t access to the infrastructure depending on your location,” said Breaker.
According to Breaker, some families tried to upgrade their internet package, or figure out a way to improve their situation but there weren’t any options. Thankfully, the Markesan Public Library received a $1,700 grant from the Green Lake County Basic Needs Fund to strengthen their signal and reach, as well as CARES Act funding to improve speed, so some students were able to access WiFi in the courtyard for online classes. Nicole Overbeck of the Markesan Library was grateful for the upgrades, but added the challenges extend beyond the classroom. “These connection problems were here before Covid, and continue to be a challenge for people who need to access job applications, or for businesses who need to access online forms and information,” she said.
Tricia Rathermel, President & CEO at Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corporation echoed this sentiment. “We heard from small businesses and agribusinesses who had to get up at 3 a.m. because that was the only time they had enough bandwidth to submit large documents for their business, and this was happening even before Covid. The pandemic magnified the need and exposed some of the gaps out there,” said Rathermel.
“Whether someone is trying to attend online classes, go to work, access healthcare information or conduct business, having access to the internet is critical to our digital economy. We are finding out how important some of our businesses are to our supply chain and overall health of our region,” she added.
A 2019 report by Forward Analytics looked at data from the Federal Communications Commission to get a general sense of the gaps of broadband service in Wisconsin. Some of the findings included:
- 25% of the rural population in Wisconsin lack access to high-speed internet.
- Wisconsin ranks 36th nationwide in accessibility for rural areas.
- The number of residents lacking access at speeds of 25 Mbps or greater exceeded
10,000 in 15 counties (dark orange in map above), six of the counties located in the New North region. In another 24 counties, more than 5,000 rural Wisconsinites lacked access. Community and economic development professionals recognize some of the main issues are related to population density, difficult terrain, lack of funding and broadband mapping accuracy.
That’s where the New North comes in. In May, New North Inc. received a $500,000 U.S. Economic Development Administration CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant to conduct a broadband gap analysis for the 18 counties of the New North region. The regional economic development corporation will lead the effort to map deficiencies and identify solutions that will help spur private business and job growth.
Broadband has become a vital need for businesses, health care delivery systems, schools, organizations and municipalities, which increasingly rely on the internet. The study will conclude in December 2021, providing a regional broadband data analysis, mapping, and cost modeling for each county.
County and municipal leaders, along with broadband service providers in our New North region will be contacted in the next several weeks by consulting firms Design Nine, MSA and GEO Partners to gather information for the study.
“We encourage residents, businesses and community leaders to respond to survey requests and broadband speed tests,” said Barbara Koldos, VP Business Development for the New North. “Every response we receive provides more data to analyze, which results in a more accurate picture of our region toward digital equity for all.” They can also be added to our broadband study mailing list by contacting us at [email protected].
The project is being matched with $125,000 in local funds from the Outagamie County Development & Land Services Dept. and a regional grant from the Basic Needs Giving Partnership, a collaboration between the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, Greater Green Bay Community Foundation, U.S. Venture, and the J.J. Keller Foundation.
For more information about the Broadband Access Study, go to the Business Page on the New North website.