New North gets broadband funding boost
By John McCracken
BROWN COUNTY – A Northeast Wisconsin economic development organization received federal funds to help ease broadband access gaps and make sure business can still get done.
New North, Inc., a regional economic development non-profit working in 18 counties throughout Northeast Wisconsin including Brown County, recently received a $500,000 U.S. Economic Development Association (EDA) Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant.
In a press release, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said the investment will “identify gaps in critical broadband service in Northeast Wisconsin, which is critical to the success of the regional economy.”
The emphasis on virtual learning, shopping, work and entertainment throughout Brown County in the past year highlighted gaps in broadband coverage in the county.
New North President and CEO Barb LaMue said people initially scrambled to adopt virtual operations when COVID-19 hit, and now workers and employers are using online tools to grow.
“We consider broadband to be just as important as a four-lane highway or other forms of infrastructure,” LaMue said.
New North will use the grant to pinpoint and map areas in the region without broadband access.
She said high-speed internet access is key for economic recovery and development.
“How do employers attract talent that work for their companies when some of them may want the option to work from home?” LaMue said. “How do we make sure where people live, they have access to be able to do their jobs remotely?”
New North is in the initial stages of the process, which includes working with broadband consultants, meeting EDA federal fund requirements and coordinating with the organization’s 18 counties.
K-12 and higher education were rattled by COVID-19 and she said that change is also a priority for the funding.
“There’s going to continue to be a virtual learning environment that will not go away once we’re totally out of the pandemic,” LaMue said. “So how do we ensure that our residents, no matter where they live in our 18 counties, have the ability to get connected?”
She said each county will likely have its own broadband implantation plans, and New North will work closely with municipal leaders.
“(The project) is a forward-looking document as to how to provide accessible, affordable broadband coverage into our region,” LaMue said.
As New North plots the use of EDA funds, Brown County elected officials in charge of charting a high-speed course are in a holding pattern.
“We’re like someone who’s building a home,” Richard Schadewald, Brown County District 24 supervisor and chair of the county’s rural broadband subcommittee said. “We’ve got our plans. We know we want to do. We’re just waiting for the finances to come through.”
Schadewald said the subcommittee awaits final directions for how to spend different federal funds from the American Rescue Plan for infrastructure and state-allocated funding.
He said those plans are likely to be completed in August.
The subcommittee was created early this year to map broadband gaps in the county through a resident-powered speed test.
The survey’s findings helped develop the Brown County Government Fiber Expansion Map, which connects municipalities, schools, 911 operations, law enforcement and other government bodies.
The map connects the county through broadband spirals, which Schadewald said is a strategy he learned from other counties to make connectivity sustainable.
“It’s best if you build your fiber optic in circles so that if you lose connectivity in one area, you don’t lose it in another,” he said.
Schadewald said the findings prove the county needs help getting connected.
As of June 2021, the speed test has been used more than 7,000 times from 5,835 unique locations.
The subcommittee’s months of surveying found federal funds administered by the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) still left coverage holes.
The local RDOF map shows a gap in broadband coverage for communities such as Bellevue, Hobart, New Franken and Oneida.
In the meantime, the subcommittee sent out requests for information from local broadband companies to begin filling in those gaps once more funding is released.
Schadewald said the subcommittee wants to get ahead of the curve because he believes many communities are already investing in broadband, and costs are bound to go up.
“We feel that broadband is going to be something that everybody’s going to be looking at the next two or three years,” he said.