"Hope on the Horizon" for Rural Residents Facing Broadband Issues
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
By Julian Emerson
Wisconsin Farmers Union Communications Specialist
When Lauren and Caleb Langworthy saw a crew of workers digging and laying high-speed internet cable just up the road from their Dunn County farm one mid-July morning, they were ecstatic.
Since purchasing their 153-acre property in 2012, the couple had struggled to communicate using the internet because of the low capacity for that service where they live. Those difficulties have intensified in recent years as high-speed internet has become a necessity for communicating and operating businesses like the Langworthys’ Blue Ox Farm, where the couple raises grass-fed sheep and cattle.
The Langworthys sell products from their farm directly to consumers, and doing so increasingly means communicating and advertising via social media. But doing that is challenging, given the extremely low bandwidth available at their property.
“It’s a joke, really,” Caleb said during a recent day while taking a break from farm chores. “We have to go through a whole series of steps for Lauren to take part in a Zoom meeting for work, or to download a video. It’s ridiculous.”
The couple’s internet speed through their current provider, Centurylink, ranges from slow to slower. It generally averages about 9 Mbps for downloads and 0.8 Mbps upload speed, although sometimes it lags even more. To compensate for that glacial internet level, Lauren and Caleb use a hotspot powered by Verizon, but the speeds and stability of that connection are highly variable.
Those numbers are far below what industry analysts say is needed to successfully navigate the internet. For comparison, the Federal Communications Commission considers a good internet speed at least 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.
However, increasingly communications experts say those standards, created in 2015, are outdated. They consider 100 Mbps a minimum level to be considered broadband. The average internet speed in the U.S. is about 150 Mbps.
The Langworthys often feel like they barely have internet at all. Lauren works from home in her job as director of special projects for Wisconsin Farmers Union, utilizing the internet to meet virtually. But those meetings frequently are a struggle as simply streaming video often forces Lauren to participate using voice only, as her internet lags when her video function is on. Yet sometimes even that work-around isn’t possible..
On other occasions, when Caleb enters the couple’s home, Lauren’s computer work is disrupted. Caleb’s cell phone is connected to the home’s internet network, and simply having his phone link in is too much for the system to handle. Likewise, if Lauren or Caleb want to watch a video, the other can’t be using the internet simultaneously.
“I do most of my work remotely,” Lauren said. “I am taking part in virtual meetings all the time. But simply doing that is a real problem, and it has become more so.”
Cell service can be difficult to access too. Caleb often climbs a hill to the farm’s most elevated point, in a pasture where the couple’s cattle and sheep graze, to simply send and receive information. As an example, on a recent day he sent a photo from that location to a reporter visiting the farm. After three failed tries, the photo finally appeared on the reporter’s phone.
“That’s just how it is here,” an exasperated Caleb chuckled. “You hit send and hope for the best.”
Rural Broadband Needs
The Langworthys are far from alone among Wisconsin’s rural residents in lacking access to high-speed internet. According to data gathered by the Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin, an estimated 650,000 people – most in rural areas – are without home internet access of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed. Another 650,000 people in the state’s rural and urban communities lack internet access because they can’t afford it, the PSC said.
The broadband shortage continues despite significant work and expenditures to address it. Since 2014, about $1.4 billion in government funding has been spent to expand high-speed internet in Wisconsin. However many people across the state continue to struggle to perform simple technology related tasks, such as simply uploading a video or conducting a Zoom meeting because of slow, unreliable internet speed.
Vicki Milewski said little has changed with her internet service since it first became available on her Clark County farm in 2006, the same year she moved there from Chicago. Her options remain dial-up or satellite, and neither works well.
Milewski gets by using a hotspot to navigate the internet on her farm. When she needs to use the internet, she makes the 45-minute drive to Eau Claire, where she owns and operates Galaudet Gallery, a fine art outlet. Her work schedule revolves around when she can access the internet.
“If I have a Zoom meeting, I’m in Eau Claire,” she said. “When I need to do (internet) work, that is where I go.”
Milewski said the difference between broadband available in large metro areas like Chicago and rural Wisconsin is stark. The resulting lack of opportunities available to people living in rural areas, especially as jobs and education are increasingly tied to technology, are troubling, she said.
“I keep hearing about how broadband expansion will attract more people to rural areas,” she said. “But there are people already living here who would like to work at home, who would like to do something different for a job besides the hard-labor jobs many of them have now … If you give these people access to the internet, who knows how much innovation could happen?”
In addition to poor internet-imposed challenges with work and marketing their farm products, the Langworthys worry about how the lack of that service might limit future opportunities for their 1-year-old daughter Lumen. They wonder how subpar internet access might limit their daughter’s education and other activities available to children with broadband, a common concern among many people in rural regions.
“The brain drain of rural areas is a pretty common theme in our conversations about rural vitality and also broadband,” Lauren said.
A lack of connections to high-speed internet is one way that rural areas have fallen behind their urban counterparts across Wisconsin and elsewhere in the U.S., said Brittany Beyer, executive director of the Grow North Economic Development Corporation and chairwoman of Gov. Tony Evers’ Task Force on Broadband Access. Increasingly, she said, when businesses and residents are looking to relocate, especially in rural regions, one of their first questions is whether broadband is available.
“We’ve been trying to showcase job opportunities in the Northwoods, to let people know there are job opportunities here,” Beyer said. “But to do that we need to greatly expand our broadband network.”
Funding through the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) and the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill Congress approved in November, commonly referred to as Bipartisan Infrastructure Legislation (BIL), is providing significant funding to make that happen, Beyer said.
As evidence of efforts to step up broadband connections, the state’s Broadband Expansion Grant Program overseen by the PSC has awarded more than $300 million in grants in recent years. Included in that funding was $100 million in ARPA dollars for broadband expansion approved in October 2021, and another $125 million as part of the 2021-23 state budget.
Since Evers began as governor in January 2019, the state has provided funding to connect more than 387,000 homes and businesses to new or improved broadband, said Matt Sweeney, PSC public and external affairs director.
“Since the Governor took office, we’ve made tremendous progress in getting people connected,” Sweeney said.
Beyer agrees, saying “right now there is a great investment that is happening even before we start to see (BIL) related work.” But much work remains, Beyer said, to plan how to maximize those expenditures to benefit the greatest number of people in need. Expanded technical assistance is a need in rural areas, she said, noting many small rural communities lack someone with grant expertise to access broadband funding.
“There is a lot of actual on-the-ground work that still needs to be done to make sure that we are being good stewards in closing the gap in broadband access,” Beyer said.
‘A Frustrating Process’
As the Langworthys watched workers progressing along Highway 25 toward their home, burying the orange-covered fiber optic cable foot by foot, they envisioned the possibilities. That cable represented their much-anticipated connection to being better able to market their farm products, better able to work from home, better able to connect with the outside world.
But it didn’t.
The workers reached a point just across Highway 25 from the Langworthy’s house, less than 100 feet from the structure. Then they continued right on by before turning up a side road in the opposite direction, away from their property.
The couple watched, momentarily stunned. Then Caleb raced out the door to meet the workers to get an explanation for why their home wasn’t being connected. Workers told him they could only lay the high-speed line in designated areas spelled out by the grant paying for the project, and that didn’t include the Langworthy’s home.
Caleb subsequently contacted the company laying that line. He said he was told that project funding terms dictate that cable can only be installed in certain areas and can’t compete with existing telecommunications companies. The Langworthy’s are on one edge of Centurylink’s service area, and thus aren’t eligible to be connected to broadband yet.
Follow-up calls revealed that Centurylink is unlikely to upgrade its service anytime soon, Caleb said, and he and Lauren were told their home likely won’t be connected to broadband in the next couple of years. To add insult to injury, a dilapidated, abandoned home and a storage shed near the Langworthy’s home now have broadband access, thanks to the new cable, while they do not.
“It’s been a frustrating process for sure,” Caleb said. “To see the cable that close to your house and not be able to connect to it, it just doesn’t seem to make sense.”
‘Hope on the Horizon’
Many Wisconsin residents are stuck in the same internet conundrum as the Langworthys, Sweeney said. In Wisconsin and many U.S. states, internet service providers face few state regulations. Unlike most public utilities – such as water, natural gas and electricity – the PSC lacks the authority to require providers to expand or improve service to customers.
Instead, internet providers make improvements when they can make a profit by doing so. In many rural areas – where populations are relatively sparse, or the terrain is more costly to install broadband – providers don’t make upgrades or install high-speed internet at all, leaving people living there without quality connection.
Options in such situations typically are limited, Sweeney said. People can switch to a different provider, but oftentimes there is only one in rural locations. Broadband technologies like Starlink, a low-orbit satellite-based service developed by Elon Musk, offer another option, he said, but the equipment and service can be expensive, service interruptions can occur, and waiting lists are common.
“Unfortunately, the scenario you describe is all too common in our state,” Sweeney responded when asked about situations like the Langworthys.
Despite challenges, Sweeney said he’s upbeat about efforts to connect rural Wisconsin to broadband in upcoming years.
“There is hope on the horizon,” he said. “Funding coming from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides an opportunity to make sure everyone gets connected. We’re working and planning to operationalize that funding over the coming years.”
The Langworthys hope those efforts are successful. In the meantime, tired of their lagging internet speed, and not seeing other viable options anytime soon, the couple decided to sign on with Starlink. They installed their Starlink equipment, which cost $600, on Aug. 8. Their new upload speed so far has ranged from 133 to 150 Mbps.
The couple already has experienced several temporary service interruptions. But they’re excited to be able to work from home, to market their farm products, and to be better connected to the outside world. During her first Zoom meeting with the new service, Lauren’s co-workers cheered at her visibly faster connection.
“It was such a relief to speak up and not worry that I might end up frozen halfway through my sentence,” Lauren said. “Caleb and I are excited by the idea that we might be able to use the bandwidth to multi-task, like regularly updating our farm’s website, even when a movie is on.”
Emerson lives in the Chippewa Valley and is Communications Specialist for Wisconsin Farmers Union. This is the first in a series of articles focused on rural infrastructure investment in the state that are being produced through WFU's Rural Voices project.