Brown County buffering on rural broadband need
By John McCracken
BROWN COUNTY – In November, Pieter deHart and his family moved a couple of miles south from New Franken to a home on Bellevue’s far-east side.
The only thing they didn’t bring with them was high-speed broadband.
“I talked to major providers and they said I’m too rural,” said deHart, the associate vice chancellor for Graduate Studies at UW-Green Bay. “Then, I spoke with small providers and they said I’m too urban.”
After the realization that high-speed internet was not available at their home, and the stark reality of everything being virtual due to the pandemic, the deHarts scrambled for options.
In the past four months, the deHarts have blown through all the data on their cellphones, accessed and spent two gigabytes of data available through Pieter’s car and even sat outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts to answer emails, pay bills or join video calls.
UWGB’s library system was eventually able to temporarily loan a mobile hotspot to the deHarts.
Before receiving the hotspot, deHart was paying roughly $50 for every 40 gigabytes of data.
Pieter’s wife Jennifer also works from home, and within one week, they used 40 gigabytes of data, and Pieter said it would cost an additional $50 for 10 gigabytes of data after that.
“I was paying to work,” said deHart. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Dehart’s confusion also comes from his proximity to others with high-speed internet.
Living on the edge of the village, the deHarts still have a Green Bay mailing address.
Before moving, deHart said he investigated internet coverage at their new home and was supposedly inside of Spectrum’s coverage.
Aurora Baycare Medical Center and the East Side Greater Green Bay YMCA, two organizations that use and require broadband, are a few miles from their home.
deHart said he’s lived in much more rural areas that have high-speed internet access, such as “middle of nowhere” central Maine.
“It has hit home to me how essential internet access is and how many people must be affected by a lack of broadband,” said deHart. “It would take (internet providers) nothing to run cable another mile or two.”
Getting up to speed
The cables in question may not be as obtainable as some might hope.
“We don’t even know where they are,” said Richard Schadewald with a slight laugh.
Schadewald is a Brown County supervisor, who represents the villages of Hobart and Howard, and serves as the chair of the county’s rural broadband subcommittee, created earlier this year.
Schadewald has heard from residents who own small businesses, work from home, or just want faster internet for recreational use, that rural broadband expansion is essential.
The disparities caused by a lack of access to high-speed broadband are currently on full display when it comes to remote education.
“There are areas in our county where students learning at home have limited access or not nearly enough access,” said Schadewald, a retired history teacher at Bay Port High School.
The goals of the subcommittee are to collect data about Brown County households’ internet access and speed to find out where coverage is needed, build partnerships with internet providers in the area and find grants and public-private partnerships with internet providers.
Data collected from the speed test will inform decisions the subcommittee makes.
The speed test initiative is administered by Geo Partners LLC, a Minnesota-based information technology firm that deploys and plans broadband expansion in developing communities, and the Brown County Community Area Network, a county-owned fiber optic cable system.
Schadewald said the information the subcommittee presents will be a recommendation to internet providers, but the body doesn’t have power to demand connectivity.
“Since providers aren’t a public utility, we can’t regulate them,” he said.
After a Feb. 15 meeting, the subcommittee is now inviting internet providers large and small to help chart next steps.
“This is going to be a longer process than we thought,” Schadewald said.
At the state-level, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction is asking residents to complete a similar speed test.
“By simply taking a few seconds to test their internet speed, Wisconsinites can help us close the digital equity gap in our state,” said Kurt Kiefer, DPI assistant state superintendent of the division for libraries and technology, in a press release.
Kiefer is a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access.
Data collected by DPI will inform improvements to internet needs, and is essential to ensuring high-quality learning for all children, said Kiefer.
As of Feb. 16, Wisconsin residents performed nearly 190,000 speed tests, with an average of 3,388 tests per day.
DPI’s speed testing project will continue through March 31.
As of early February, Charter Communications, a telecommunications and mass media giant, expects to invest approximately $5 billion to support its gigabit high-speed broadband access rollout.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) awarded Charter $1.2 billion for this Rural Digital Opportunity Fund initiative.
Charter and the FCC estimate there are more than 1 million unserved, rural customers across 24 states, including Wisconsin.
Kim Haas, spokesperson for Charter, said Charter Spectrum serves the communities of Bellevue and Hobart, offering gigabit connections and 100 megabits starting speeds.
deHart’s address is not listed inside the company’s service area, despite a Green Bay mailing address.
“A variety of factors affect our expansion decisions, including the number of additional homes or businesses we can reach, geographic or construction challenges and overall economic feasibility,” Haas said.
Hobart Village Administrator Aaron Kramer said getting providers into the area takes convincing that high-speed internet isn’t already an option, and the lack of broadband has been a consistent complaint of village residents.
“When you look at the state’s broadband map, it shows that Hobart has high-speed (internet) everywhere,” said Kramer. “That is certainly not the case.”
Hobart, Howard and Bellevue are colored a dark blue, representing advertised download speeds of 25 megabits per second or more.
Kramer said providers have stayed out of the area because they don’t know there is a need to fill.
“The difficulty is having to prove that high-speed (internet) doesn’t exist here,” said Kramer.
Brown County’s steps to gather data and present accurate findings to potential providers is part of getting residents up to speed.
“It would be financially impossible for any municipality in Brown County to install broadband on their own,” said Kramer. “It has to be a collaborative effort from the village, the cities, the state and federal government.”