By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — The next step in solving the problem of slow Internet connections in the rural areas of Dunn County is figuring out exactly where poor Internet service persists.
And that’s why the Dunn County Board’s Community Resources and Tourism Committee and UW-Extension are gearing up to conduct a “gap analysis.”
The analysis will use surveys filled out by people living in the county so the areas with poor or non-existent Internet access can be identified and mapped, said Jason Hausler, 4-H Youth Development Educator, at a community meeting about rural broadband April 6 at the Dunn County Community Services Building.
For those who are wondering why the 4-H Youth Development Educator would be involved with improving broadband in Dunn County, Internet access is directly tied to education and youth development, Hausler said.
One of the handouts to people attending the community meeting was a map of Internet availability in Dunn County produced by the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin’s Broadband Office.
Several people pointed out that the map was unacceptably inaccurate. Areas of the map that indicated 10 megabits per second download speeds, for example, with 1.5 megabits per second of upload speeds, actually had download speeds of only 250 or 500 kilobits, they said.
Mary Kluz, UW-Extension Community Development, provided information to the group about various aspects of Internet service.
For purposes of comparison to what people were reporting as opposed to what was on the PSC’s map, with dial-up Internet speeds of 56 kilobits per second, downloading a movie from the Internet would take 34 hours and 44 minutes. With DSL providing 1.5 megabits of download speed, the movie could be downloaded in one hour and 50 minutes. With a gigabit of Internet speed, a movie could be downloaded in seven seconds.
Reliable, fast Internet service has had economic impacts across the world, Kluz said.
The Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration are two of the federal agencies that deal with broadband, she said.
A Boston Consulting Group study done in 2013 revealed that small or medium businesses, if using the Internet effectively, have a 7 percent revenue growth, giving them a distinctly competitive edge, she said.
A study by S&E Group showed that 56 percent of business owners believed Internet access was essential to retaining business, while 56 percent of households said they would relocate if broadband was not available. Another 32 percent of households said they work from home, either working for someone else or working for their own business, Kluz said.
A 2013 study conducted by UW-Extension found a difference in household income with good Internet service, she said.
The Internet has changed all aspects of society and is known as a “disruptive innovation,” Kluz said.
Resorts in northern Wisconsin are now finding that some people are unwilling to stay at the resort on a vacation if no Internet access is available, Kluz said.
The state of Wisconsin has made funds available for grants to improve Internet access, she noted.
The United States Department of Agriculture also has community development grants.
Terry Nichols, a Town of Colfax resident, said he has contacted the PSC and told officials the broadband map is outdated, and “the PSC knows that.”
As it turns out, if one household in a census block has adequate Internet access, the whole block is considered to have the service available, he said.
Over the past year, a number of things have happened regarding the improvement of Internet access in Dunn County, Hausler said.
In June of 2016, the Dunn County Board approved a resolution to improve Internet access in Dunn County and to be proactive on improving the infrastructure, he said.
After the county board approved the resolution, 24-7 Telcom submitted a grant application to the PSC to improve Internet access for the community of Rusk in the Town of Red Cedar. The Red Cedar Town Board agreed to put money toward the project, and 24-Telcom also received a $67,000 grant. Construction on improving Internet access in Rusk began in October, and by December of 2016, the subscribers who lived in Rusk and wanted the service were able to get it, Hausler said.
The next step for Dunn County is to improve the Internet service map, he said.
After Internet access has been accurately identified and the map improved, the information will then be given to companies that might be interested, such as 24-7 Telcom, Mosaic Telecom and CenturyLink, Hausler said.
If Dunn County’s gap analysis is completed by fall, then the information gathered will be available for Internet service providers and can be used for writing grant applications, he said.
The community conversation April 6 in Menomonie was only the first of several that will be held around Dunn County, Hausler said.
The next meeting will be in Boyceville on May 23, he said.
Another meeting will be held in Colfax later on, and a conversation with the towns will be held at the Dunn County Towns Association meeting April 24, Hausler said.
In addition, conversations will be occurring with the Internet service providers in Dunn County, such as 24-7 Telcom, Mosaic and CenturyLink, he said.
A comprehensive survey regarding Internet service in Dunn County eventually will be available online for people to fill out to identify residential service in the county, Hausler said.
The survey about Internet access will be available in paper form as well for those people who live in parts of the county where there is no broadband service at all, he said.
The survey for residents will be quite detailed and will include questions about how much people are willing to pay for Internet service and how many school aged children are in the family since Internet access can be essential for completing homework, Hausler said.
The business community also will be surveyed to find out what they are not able to do now because of inadequate Internet access, he noted.
The survey is expected to be available for people to fill out by late May or early June, Hausler said.
Several other counties have already completed a gap analysis, so Dunn County will not have to reinvent the wheel by writing survey questions, he noted.
Angie Dickinson of the PSC’s Broadband Office also attended the meeting and said that her office is ready to launch the grants as soon as the state Legislature has approved the bill regarding funding and the money is available.
Steve Rasmussen, chair of the Dunn County Board, asked about territory overlap with the telecoms and the larger companies, such as CenturyLink.
Telephone companies are limited to their already-determined service areas, but Internet is an unregulated market, so telecoms and larger companies can go outside of their telephone service areas to provide Internet access, said Scott Behn of Mosaic Telecom.
When Mosaic applied for a grant to improve Internet service, CenturyLink contested the grant application, he said, adding that Mosaic was able to get the grant in spite of CenturyLink’s objections.
All together, the federal government is planning to invest $870 million in Wisconsin to improve rural broadband.
Only one other state, California, has more money allotted to improve broadband service than Wisconsin, Behn said.
“Help is coming. Speed is coming,” he said.
When telecoms go outside their service areas to provide Internet access, “it’s a 100 percent gamble,” Behn said.
In any given area, 57 percent of the homes will subscribe to a carrier’s Internet access, so that makes it more difficult to get a return on the investment, he said.
“If you build it, will they come — but if you don’t build it, will they come?” he asked.
The Mosaic Board of Directors has approved a $1 million expenditure to improve Internet access along 15.4 miles for 184 homes, which amounts to $5,400 per home, Behn said.
Earlier in the meeting, Kluz had noted that realtors report up to a $7,000 increase in home values for houses with good Internet access.
Rather than actual technical difficulties with the Internet service, many of Mosaic’s “trouble calls” regarding Internet access are because “Mr. and Mrs. Smith do not know how to use their computer,” Behn said.
At times, the most frequently-asked questions for Mosaic technicians are “How do I use Facebook? How do I use Google?” he said.
The cost from local Internet service providers for 75 megabits per second of Internet access is about $80 per month, and the cost for one gig of upload and download speed is around $320 per month.
Residents in Dunn County who use the CenturyLink service pay about $60 per month for Internet connections as slow as 250 or 500 kilobits per second.
Nichols, the Town of Colfax resident, said he has called CenturyLink numerous times to complain about the poor service. When the technician asks if he has run a “speed test” on the connection, Nichols informs the technician that the Internet service is so poor, he cannot open and run CenturyLink’s own speed test.
The meeting room in the basement of the Dunn County Community Services building was filled almost to capacity.
When asked how many people would subscribe to a local carrier for Internet service if it were available, such as 24-7 Telcom or Mosaic, rather than obtaining service from the big carriers such as AT&T and CenturyLink, nearly every hand in the room went up.