Electricity transformed rural America nearly a century ago. Now, millions of people on farms and in small towns desperately need broadband.
This story was republished on Jan. 5, 2022 to make it free for all readers
Athens, Wis. – As the last hour of daylight fades, Kat Becker parks across the street from the Peterson/Kraemer funeral home.
Becker shuts off the engine of her powder blue Toyota Prius and reaches for her laptop computer. Her two children, Maple and Ted, peer over her shoulder from the back seat.
She connects to the funeral home’s wireless internet, glancing at the obituaries before moving along to other websites.
Back home, at her Cattail Organics farm in Marathon County, it would have taken an estimated 42 hours to upload a short video she’d done for a nearby nonprofit organization. It’s much easier to drive into town and catch a Wi-Fi signal from the funeral home or the public library.
“I would say that’s a common practice where we are,” Becker said.
The farming life is her passion. A native of New York City with a master’s degree in sociology, she’s equally conversant in farming’s impact on global warming and in challenges to the local marketplace. She embodies the modern farm-to-table movement, a pillar of Wisconsin’s rural economy.
Trapped in the 1990s
But when it comes to the internet — essential for contacting other farmers, communicating with urban customers, keeping up with trends in the field — Becker is trapped in the 1990s.
« Something like Zoom meetings, » she said, « are the bane of rural existence. »
At a time when people can work remotely and run businesses from practically anywhere, the internet should be a boon to the rural economy. Not only could it keep Wisconsin’s signature farming industry connected, it could help curb population losses in small towns, where many young people feel they must leave for opportunities elsewhere.
Yet a significant portion of rural Wisconsin — if it has access to the internet at all — lacks access at broadband speeds, meaning a connection of at least 25 megabit per second downloads and 3 Mbps uploads. For them, ordinary tasks such as posting a video on a website are all but impossible.
State officials have estimated that 430,000 people — a quarter of the rural population — lack broadband, also called high-speed internet.
“It is such a dividing line,” said Eric Budleski, a commercial real estate agent in Marathon County and, like Becker, a member of the county’s broadband task force.
The problem extends across a wide swath of rural America. Millions of people have inadequate internet service, something the COVID-19 pandemic has made all the more glaring.
Yet the full scope of the problem isn’t known because Federal Communications Commission data widely underestimates coverage gaps.
As of 2020, the commission said approximately 14 million people lived in areas without broadband access. However, the firm Broadband Now, which helps consumers find service, said it was closer to 42 million.
Even those who have the minimum speeds are finding it’s no longer enough, especially families with multiple devices online at the same time. Each year, they fall further and further behind what is considered the norm in the rest of the country.
« The problem isn’t just the lack of connections. It’s the lack of good connections, » said Jonathan Sallet, a senior fellow at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society and former general counsel for the FCC.
Add to that the issue of affordability. Even if broadband is available, the owner of a small family farm trying to stay financially afloat may not be able to afford it. That’s one problem shared with urban America; only a tiny fraction of city residents lack access, yet for many, especially in low-income neighborhoods, it’s simply too expensive.
The result, across Wisconsin and the country, is a widening gap between the haves and have-nots that has profound economic and social consequences.
Microsoft Corp. research showed that in 2020, for a variety of reasons including affordability, about 120 million Americans did not use the internet at broadband speeds. That’s about 36% of the population.
« We live in a time of greater economic disparity than at any point since the 1930s, » said Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith, originally from Wisconsin, in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. « And the technology divide is one of the reasons for it. »
More than $1 billion in subsidies has already been spent, or allocated, for broadband infrastructure and service just in Wisconsin. At least another $100 million in federal funding will be available this summer through state Public Service Commission grants to internet service providers.
“If we can’t get it done with all of the federal money floating around, I don’t know when we ever will,” said PSC Commissioner Ellen Nowak.
But the track record of government spending to expand internet access has at times been poor, and it’s hard to think of anything more important to economic growth and rural sustainability.
If broadband isn’t the No. 1 issue in rural Wisconsin, « it’s got to be close to it, » Gov. Tony Evers said in a Journal Sentinel interview.
The importance was cited 124 times in a state of Wisconsin rural prosperity report last December covering jobs, education, health care and other topics.
« Working-class parents can’t work if they have to sit with their children in the car to access public Wi-Fi hotspots, » the report said.
The pandemic cast the problem in even sharper relief. Some families pivoted smoothly to working and studying from home; others languished. When schools went to online learning, the Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance polled districts about their challenges. Dozens cited home internet access.
“This is an equity issue for rural families and has a deep impact on rural economic growth, » the Adams-Friendship School District, in Adams County, said in response to the poll. « It has to become a priority like rural electrification in the early 1930s.”
Electric power transformed lives
One of the most profound changes in America began 85 years ago when electricity was extended to the countryside. As part of an economic stimulus package, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, spurring the deployment of electric power even in places far off the grid.
It was a cornerstone of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program, allowing the federal government to make low-interest loans to farmers who had banded together to form not-for-profit electric cooperatives. Assistance was needed because running wires into areas with few homes per mile wasn’t profitable for private investors.
At the time, power companies said it was their right to serve rural areas, where it suited them, because they had pioneered the industry. They slammed the cooperatives as « socialist and anti-American, » author Sharon O’Malley wrote in a history article for the National Rural Electric Cooperatives Association.
Farmers argued they should be allowed to electrify the countryside because the power companies had ignored them for more than a decade. Wisconsin was at the forefront of the controversy; farmers even started their own newspaper, Wisconsin REA News, to counter a massive advertising campaign the companies were running against them.
Eventually, both sides played a near equal role in bringing electricity to rural areas.
And with it, lives were transformed.
Farmers could do barn chores later in the evening or before dawn. Cooking on smoky wood stoves, pumping water by hand, reading by kerosene lamps, all mostly became things of the past. Even rural health care improved as doctors’ offices finally had the electric power that had become commonplace in cities.
Todd Mehrkens, of Pierce County, remembers his grandfather talking about how people could hardly wait for power lines to be strung along country roads.
« Grandpa had already wired his house and barn, » Mehrkens said.
Now, the grandson eagerly awaits his own technological renaissance — high-speed internet coming to about 200 homes in the Town of Diamond Bluff, north of Red Wing, Minnesota, on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River.
Last summer, he and his neighbors watched crews dig trenches and bury fiber-optic cable that will deliver the service. They took pictures to document the event and felt the sense of excitement people had when electricity arrived.
The project was partially funded by a $444,211 state public service commission grant to Hager Telecom Co. of nearby Hager City.
The town’s residents, known as « Bluffers, » should soon have internet speeds comparable to big cities.
It will be easier for Mehrkens to download videos for his church, and the high-speed connection will help with his job as town clerk. His neighbors won’t have to cross the river to Red Wing, Minnesota, to use Wi-Fi hot spots.
« You also get that guilty feeling, how we’re so lucky while others aren’t, » Mehrkens said.
Broadband that’s just out of reach
Wisconsin’s story is told both in numbers and the people behind them.
In nine counties — Ashland, Clark, Douglas, Iron, Marinette, Price, Richland, Rusk and Taylor — less than half of the rural population had access to broadband speeds in 2019, according to a report last fall from Forward Analytics, a Madison-based firm.
Some people have waited years for a decent connection, not knowing if it will ever come.
Patricia Voermans is one of them. She lives on a narrow peninsula that separates Lake Mary and Lake Buteau, in Lincoln County. Homes in the forested area, called Gleason, are popular with summer residents.
For nearly 30 years, the community of about 200 was home to Shooting Ranch Motion Picture Studios, which produced low-budget horror films such as « The Giant Spider Invasion » and « Monster A Go-Go. » It closed in 1988 and has faded into history.
Voermans, a county supervisor, said broadband always seems just out of reach. One day last fall, a technician came to her house to install service, but couldn’t do it because the old copper telephone line leading to her property wouldn’t support the connection.
« This is frustrating, real frustrating, » she said.
The state Department of Public Instruction asked school districts to survey families about the depth of the problem. More than 400,000 people responded. In some districts, 25% of the survey respondents — one in four families — said they didn’t have any home internet access, let alone broadband. It was nearly half of the families in a handful of districts.
Haves and have-nots
The survey also showed that thousands of families, both in rural areas and cities, couldn’t afford service even when it was available.
« The affordability issue cuts across the entire state, » said Kurt Kiefer, DPI assistant superintendent of schools.
Large sections of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation, near Bayfield, have struggled to get a connection.
« If you get off the pavement, you might as well not even try, » said Thoren Rutyna, Red Cliff’s information technology director.
The tribe’s vice chairman had internet service that barely worked, from a copper line strung through the trees and in some places, left laying on the ground. The line delivered phone service as well, but it eventually had to be disconnected because it was making « ghost » 911 calls.
Yet on nearby Madeline Island in Lake Superior, there’s ultra-fast broadband for residents, tourists and an art school. The installation was partially funded by 2009 federal stimulus money and involved running a fiber-optic cable 2.5 miles under the lake.
It is one of those economic « haves and have-nots » issues.
« Native Americans have always been among the have-nots, » Rutyna said.
In Iron County, on the border of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Neil Klemme understands the challenges and pleasures of what he calls « rural remote » Wisconsin. It may be a two-hour drive just to do back-to-school shopping. Then again, on his daily commute to work, he sometimes sees more eagles than cars.
High school students in the Iron County town of Mercer created a digital map for the area’s most beautiful waterfalls. It’s been helpful for tourists more accustomed to using GPS coordinates than a folded piece of paper.
But outside of town, internet access quickly fades and it can be tough to get even a cellphone connection.
Klemme is the county 4-H Club youth development educator. « I would love to do more online, but it would be difficult to guarantee that every kid who is participating would be getting the same thing, » he said.
Hurley High School senior Mackenzie Backman said she often struggles with the internet even in town. “It’s slower than dirt, » she said, and Zoom meetings were a « mess » when classes first went online.
Iron County’s median age is around 55 and its labor force shrank more than 10% from 2010-2018, according to Forward Analytics, which studies population trends.
The county has pushed back by promoting a strategy known as « boomerang migration. » Local youth are encouraged to return home after they’ve finished college or spent a few years working elsewhere.
But without decent internet, it’s a hard sell.
Realtors say having high-speed internet access in a rural area can boost the selling price of a home by a significant amount, including cottages in the Northwoods where people would live year-round, or at least extend their stay, if they could work remotely.
« For our future up here, broadband is the single most important thing, » said Christopher Starks, retired from the aerospace industry and now working with University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension in the Northwoods.
Terrain an issue
One of the issues in getting service to rural areas lies in the many miles of fiber cable that has to be buried, sometimes at a cost of around $30,000 a mile.
It’s even more expensive to tunnel under a river or cross rugged terrain.
« There’s a lot of rock to be cut in some places, » said John Sonnek, operations director at Bevcomm Inc., a Minnesota-based broadband and phone company that covers northwest Wisconsin.
It’s also very expensive to maintain and upgrade equipment on wireless towers several hundred feet in the air. Something as simple as changing a light bulb could cost $5,000, said Chad Young, CEO of Norvado Inc., a Bayfield area broadband provider.
However, the biggest barrier to getting service is low population density, the dilemma of not enough customers per mile.
“When you’re talking about a payback that could be 20 years into the future, it’s a very difficult proposition,” said Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, a trade group that represents broadband service providers, many of them locally-owned companies.
In the era of the Rural Electrification Act, the government could wait 30 years for nonprofit cooperatives to repay loans. But it’s a starkly different reality faced by for-profit businesses answering to shareholders.
« The big companies will be punished by Wall Street if they invest for the good of rural America, » said Christopher Mitchell, director of the community broadband networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.
Still, the nation should rekindle some of that spirit from the REA, according to Jessica Rosenworcel, an FCC commissioner President Joe Biden has named as acting chairwoman.
Biden included $100 billion in his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan to “bring affordable, reliable high-speed broadband to every American » but has since scaled it back to around $65 billion of a $1.7 trillion package.
The White House said the emphasis would be on systems “owned, operated by, or affiliated with » local governments, nonprofits and cooperatives. For-profit companies would have to fully reveal their prices, leveling the playing field for new entrants in the marketplace.
There are parallels to the rural electric movement in the 1930s.
« We need to reach everyone, everywhere, » Rosenworcel said. « Sometimes people will think that goal is too audacious, but it’s not. »
Networks should be designed for the long haul, without losing sight of the fact that so many people currently don’t have access to even minimum broadband speeds, according to Rosenworcel.
It’s doable, she says.
« If you look back in the history of our country, when our communities didn’t have the resources they needed to thrive, we came together, » she said.
« We did it before and we can do it again. »
The Journal Sentinel is examining the lack of high-speed internet, also called broadband, in rural areas.
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Reporter Rick Barrett spent the 2020-21 academic year as an O’Brien Fellow in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University examining the challenges facing rural Wisconsin. He was assisted by student researchers Christopher Miller and Kelli Arseneau.
All work on the project was done under the guidance of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editors. Marquette University and administrators of the program played no role in the reporting, editing or presentation of this project.
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