Finding a Communications Solution
Neighborhood members work to overcome hurdles to get connected to broadband
By Julian Emerson
Wisconsin Farmers Union Communications Specialist
DODGEVILLE – Tired after years of intermittent-to-nonexistent internet service, Debra and Paul Janssen decided to take matters into their own hands.
Completing even the simplest tasks that require the internet had become increasingly challenging during the couple’s five years in their home, part of the 22-house Green Leaf Glen neighborhood amid the scenic, rolling hills of Iowa County, about two miles north of Dodgeville.
For the Janssens and others in their housing development, using the internet for virtually anything is a challenge. Simple searches are most often interrupted.
When Debra tries to take part in Zoom meetings for her work, she is frequently kicked off of those sessions because the extremely slow 0.2 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 0.14 Mbps for uploads makes taking part nearly impossible. For comparison, minimum broadband speeds are 25 Mbps for downloads and 3Mbps for uploads. Average download speed for broadband users is about 150 Mbps, experts say.
Debra doesn’t even bother to turn on video for those meetings; simply operating audio only can crash her internet. “And even with that, the people I work with are always like ‘Debra, I can’t hear you,’ Even with just audio, I’m always freezing up,” she said.
Similarly, Paul can’t enjoy a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game because doing so uses up all of the monthly data the couple purchases to have internet service at all.
“It’s a joke,” an exasperated Paul said during a recent morning in his kitchen, noting he and his wife pay more than $300 monthly for dish satellite, TV and internet service, but they often are insufficient. “We can’t even do the simplest things. Even with just one of us using the internet, it often doesn’t work, and when it does, it’s super slow.”
The Janssens’ Green Leaf Glen neighbors experience similar internet problems. All of them lack high-speed internet service, leaving them to purchase expensive internet service that often works poorly or not at all. Satellite-based internet service such as Starlink isn’t available in the housing development, they said. Most who live there still have landlines for telephone service as cell phone reception is poor.
Janean Marr, who lives near the Janssens, said she must drive to the top of her driveway to even access the internet for the Zoom meetings she participates in for her job as an emergency room nurse supervisor. Even then, she often loses connection and suddenly can’t access those meetings, she said.
Her husband Ryan operates a landscaping business and can’t even load software to track his expenses and revenues. They often travel to Dodgeville to do work on the internet because they can’t at home.
“We always have to ask ‘Is anyone else using the internet?’ ” Janean said. “Using the internet at home is so frustrating. It adds a lot of anxiety to our lives. You can’t be efficient and simply do your job.”
‘We Have to Solve This’
Tired of lagging internet, the Janssens took action. In August 2020, the couple contacted their neighbors, one by one, listening to their internet woes and convincing them they needed to at least try to change their situation. They formed a neighborhood group to work on the issue.
Debra and Paul, accompanied by neighbors, then met with town board members, Iowa County Board supervisors, and local internet providers, advocating for expanding broadband to their neighborhood.
“At a certain point, I just decided I don’t care who I tick off. We have got to solve this,” Debra recalled of forming the neighborhood group and speaking out at meetings involving local government officials and internet companies.
The neighbors group applied for a grant from the state to help pay to link their neighborhood to high-speed internet, but that effort failed. They attended more meetings with internet providers and local government officials, but no solutions were forthcoming.
“There were many, many times when I said ‘we’re never getting (broadband),” Debra said. “It didn’t seem like it was going to happen.”
Struggles, Then Success
Then the Janssens met with the CEO of Mount Horeb Telephone Company (MHTC), one of the area’s internet providers. He listened to their concerns, and then, a breakthrough: He said there might be a solution, if neighborhood residents were willing to help pay a portion of the cost of extending broadband to their homes.
The Janssens and MHTC subsequently approached the County Board to ask for $38,000 in county ARPA dollars to make broadband in their neighborhood possible. They sought an additional $11,500 from the town of Dodgeville. MHTC was willing to provide $136,000 to cover the cost of installing the cable, engineering and materials.
That left Green Leaf Glen neighbors to come up with $75,000.
A few neighbors balked initially at the price, Debra said. But they eventually relented, and all of them supported paying to extend broadband to their homes. Debra, Paul and other neighbors attended town and County Board meetings to explain the need for the internet and to assure board supervisors they were willing to pay their part. Board members questioned the project, asking whether this was the best way to spend ARPA dollars.
‘Such a Relief’
Then, almost two years after the effort began, an agreement to bring broadband to Green Leaf Glen was approved. Debra, Paul and other neighbors could hardly believe it. Workers began burying the fiber optic cable that will transmit high-speed internet to Green Leaf Glen in mid-August, and neighbors have been told to expect to be connected to the service in October.
“Learning that we are going to be getting real internet service, it’s like winning the lottery,” Janean Marr said.
Barry Hottmann, Iowa County community development educator with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension, praised the combined efforts of Green Leaf Glen residents, county and town board members, and MHTC to find a broadband access solution. Such creative agreements will be necessary to bring broadband to many of the state’s rural communities, he said.
“It’s all about creating that collaboration and being proactive and thinking outside the box,” Hottmann said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. With broadband in these rural areas, you’re dealing with many different situations, so we have to be flexible in figuring out the best ways to solve the problems.”
Like those living in Green Leaf Glen, many other Wisconsin residents – especially people in rural parts of the state – lack high-speed internet service. The Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin says 650,000 Wisconsinites lack broadband, or internet speed of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed. Another 650,000 people statewide don’t have broadband because they can’t afford it, a PSC study found.
Rural areas tend to remain unconnected because the lesser populations in those regions compared to rural ones makes broadband access less profitable for telecommunications providers. Challenging topography in the form of hills, streams and rivers, and rocky, compacted soil in some regions in western Wisconsin make broadband expansion more costly and difficult.
However, the push is on to connect rural residents to broadband, with federal, state, local and private dollars being used to link more Wisconsin residents. Since 2014, about $1.4 billion in government funding has been spent to expand high-speed internet statewide. In the past three-plus years, about 390,000 people statewide – many in rural locations – have gained broadband access, according to Gov. Tony Evers’ administration.
Efforts to link rural Wisconsin residents to broadband will be bolstered in upcoming years by funding through the $1 trillion federal infrastructure legislation, known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that Congress approved in November. The funding package includes money to address infrastructure needs of all sorts, including connecting people to high-speed internet service.
The Janssens realize their good fortune in getting linked to broadband. The availability of ARPA funding that could be used for broadband was key, they said, as was convincing MHTC to be a part of the effort. They and their neighbors have the money to pay to make internet service to their neighborhood possible, and they realize many lack those resources.
Debra and Paul said their effort could serve as a blueprint to teach others the importance of getting involved with local government and building partnerships with internet providers to see what is possible. They hope that BIL funding will connect other rural residents to broadband in upcoming years.
“I’ve been educated about how bad the broadband situation is for so many people in Wisconsin,” Debra said. “I wish we could replicate what happened for us with a lot of other small communities in the state.”
Emerson lives in the Chippewa Valley and is the Communications Specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union. This is part of an ongoing series of articles focused on rural infrastructure investment in the state that are being produced through WFU's Rural Voices project. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.