Rural Route Opinion Column – Leslie Svacina
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.
I raise goats for meat for cultural and local foods markets. Most of my sales, direct and wholesale, are made through the internet. In today’s world, almost all products and software are 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. My husband, who works from home, can’t access a company server or use web conference calling because of low speed and inconsistent internet.
We are rural, but nothing extreme. We are 13 miles from the closest town and an hour from a major metro area. We’ve tried different options for providers, even multiple services at one time, including satellite internet and cell phones. Nothing worked well. Now we use DSL through our telephone provider because I refuse to pay for services that don’t work. Others who don’t live far from us pay half the price for speeds that are at least 50 times the speed of what we use, which is 2 megabits per second, but only after pleading that 1Mbps wasn’t sufficient.
In August, I discussed rural broadband challenges with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue while he was in Wisconsin. I explained our situation in western Wisconsin but also shared other frustrations that I’ve heard of such as paying a $100-plus a month and speeds of 0.2Mbps.
For example, a friend who has a robotic milk system can’t update her software. 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.
A fellow Farm Bureau member discussed another point during the round table with Secretary Perdue. Some school districts provide students with iPads so they can do homework, but some rural students can’t use them at home because they lack broadband availability.
In the 2017-19 state budget, $9,187,500 was allocated for schools to apply for specifically designated broadband for personal electronic computing devices. This will be useless without adequate broadband.
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.
The keyword in that last sentence is ‘useable.’ Simply having internet doesn’t cut it. It’s about having access to useable, reliable service at a reasonable price.
Have you tested your internet speed? Visit goo.gl/zUYaYJ, then click the blue box ‘Run Speed Test’ to find your download speed.
For reference the Federal Communications Commission calls 10 mbps basic speed, but has set 25Mbps as its benchmark. I highly recommend you test your internet speed.
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 broadband service in underserved areas of Wisconsin. Created by Governor 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 broadband infrastructure investment in the 2017-19 budget, Governor Walker proposed a significant expansion of the program: approximately $14 million. At the same time, the Legislature approved bills to dramatically increase funding, in response to the recommendations that came in 2016 from the Joint Legislative Council’s Study Committee on Rural Broadband.
Wisconsin will see $570 million invested in broadband infrastructure through 2020 via the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect American Fund Phase II project. Three major telecommunications providers in the state are participating in this program with many projects under construction.
This may seem like a significant amount of money to invest in broadband infrastructure, and don’t get me wrong, it is, but the need in rural Wisconsin more reliable and useable service so farmers, 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.
Leslie Svacina owns Cylon Rolling Acres, raising pastured meat goats in Western Wisconsin. Leslie has a degree in agricultural marketing communications from UW-River Falls, a master’s degree in agribusiness from Kansas State University and a master’s degree in education from UW-La Crosse. She is a past state FFA officer. She lives with her husband and son near Deer Park.