As seen in the Feb. 5, 2008, Tomahawk Leader:
Rural areas like northern Wisconsin continue to experience challenges when it comes to gaining high-speed Internet access. Some people call this the ‘digital divide,’ meaning that there is a difference between rural and urban areas when it comes to access to Internet services.
“Access to broadband in rural areas is limited, which impedes economic growth and in some cases eliminates northern Wisconsin as an option when companies are seeking a place to locate” observes Jack Sroka, Lincoln County’s Economic Development director. “Broadband is similar to other basic infrastructure like highway access. “Companies need broadband to stay competitive and grow,” he says.
Jim Kumbera, who directs Oneida County’s economic development efforts, agrees. “My primary concern with the lack of broadband connectivity in the area is that the next generation of companies and their employees won’t be here because they need broadband to be competitive.” Kumbera also says that broadband is essential to attracting employees to the area. “People are attracted to the Northwoods for a wide variety of reasons, but access to broadband is important enough to be a deal breaker if it isn’t there.”
Local communities are becoming more aware of the issue and the importance of broadband service. The city of Antigo has invested heavily in a wireless broadband system to make the community more attractive. The Three Lakes Town Action Group has made the issue one of its top priorities, and the Lakeland Times recently reported that 150 residents in Minocqua petitioned the town board to find ways to improve broadband connectivity.
But like many infrastructure issues, developing broadband connectivity might require collaboration across counties.
A regional economic development organization called Grow North intends to address the problem by facilitating a broadband feasibility study for the Grow North region that includes Forest, Langlade, Lincoln, Oneida and Vilas counties. The study will develop a business model designed to bring broadband connectivity to the entire region.
Nick Gilbertson, who co-chairs the committee Grow North that was formed to look at broadband connectivity, thinks the study will yield positive results. “A number of rural areas have successfully brought broadband into their region by using feasibility studies to demonstrate that broadband connectivity in rural areas can be profitable,” Gilbertson says. “Although broadband companies tend to invest in areas where there is a concentrated population, new wireless technologies and a variety of state and federal incentives make rural areas like ours good candidates for increased broadband service.”
Grow North intends to hire a company called Excelsio Communications to conduct the study. Excelsio has conducted similar studies in other Wisconsin counties with good results.
“The primary advantage Excelsio brings to the table is the business planning component, which will allow companies interested in developing a regional broadband system to see the actual numbers in terms of investment and returns,” says Gilbertson.
Grow North has researched broadband connectivity in the Northwoods and plans to move forward with the feasibility study this spring. The group recently submitted a grant application to the Wisconsin Department of Commerce to fund part of the study, but Grow North will need to do some fund raising in order to cover the cost of the study.
“We have already had some success in fund raising with pledges totaling $2,000,” said Gilbertson, “but we will continue the fund-raising effort over the next two months to ensure we have the dollars needed to perform the study.”
Gilbertson says Grow North is seeking $25,000 to fund the study, and that businesses or individuals who are interested in funding part of the study or are looking for more information can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.