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Viewpoint: Poor broadband access puts rural areas at a disadvantage

By Leslie Svacina, owner of Cylon Rolling Acres in Deer Park

High-speed internet, or broadband, has become a vital utility in our lives. One that could arguably be grouped with electricity, water and sewer; however, if you live in a rural area, this near necessity isn't available.

Broadband access is a topic I avidly follow. I raise goats for meat for the cultural and local foods markets.

Most of my sales, direct and wholesale, are made through the internet. In today's world, almost all software is internet-based. Poor internet makes it hard to do business even at a basic level. It's a challenge to send emails, use my accounting program or manage my farm website. It takes an excessive amount of time and sometimes doesn't happen due to service issues.

I'm in rural Deer Park, but am only 13 miles from New Richmond. We've tried different options for providers, even multiple services at one time, including satellite internet and cell phones. Nothing works well. Now, we just use DSL because I refuse to pay for services that don't work. Services in town are quoted for a lower price for speeds about 24 times of our internet, which was 1 mbps. It's now 2 mbps, but only after pleading that 1 mbps wasn't sufficient with our provider.

In August, I discussed rural broadband challenges with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue while he was in Wisconsin. Since that time others have shared their internet woes with me: paying a $100-plus a month, speeds of 0.2 mbps and students in "iPad school districts" who can't do homework at home. A fellow farming colleague of mine has a robotic milk system and can't update her software due to internet access. The system service tech downloads the update at his shop and creates the updates via hard drive on the farm. Pretty impressive technology, right? Talk about a disadvantage.

Rural areas are suffering to keep up. We're talking about basic access to useable internet for our businesses and students to learn, not for entertainment. Simply having internet doesn't cut it. It's about having access to useable, reliable service at a reasonable price.

For reference the FCC calls 10 mbps basic speed, but has set 25 mbps as its benchmark. I highly recommend testing your speed by doing a Google search for "Internet Speed Test."

While there's still a long way to go, broadband expansion is at least growing. The Broadband Expansion Grant Program provides funds for equipment and construction expenses to expand or improve service in underserved areas of Wisconsin. Created by Gov. Scott Walker in the 2013-15 budget, the Legislature initially invested $500,000 per year for the program, but it was increased to $1.5 million annually in the next budget.

Understanding the critical and timely need for a broadband infrastructure investment, Gov. Walker proposed a significant expansion of the program: approximately $14 million in the 2017-19 budget. At the same time, the Legislature approved bills to increase funding, in response to the recommendations from the Joint Legislative Council's 2016 Study Committee on Rural Broadband.

Wisconsin will see $570 million invested in broadband infrastructure through 2020 via the FCC's Connect American Fund Phase II project with three major telecommunications providers in the state participating.

This may seem like a significant amount of money to invest in a broadband, and don't get me wrong, it is, but the need in rural Wisconsin for faster and more reliable useable service so farmers, business owners and students, can do what they need to do is significant.

It's a wise investment in the people and businesses in rural Wisconsin and one that I believe is long overdue.

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