1 in 5 businesses consider moving out of Dunn County due to poor Internet access

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE  —  One in five Dunn County businesses — 21 percent — that responded to the Broadband Gap Analysis Survey have considered moving out of the county because of poor Internet access.

The business statistic was part of the presentation of the Rural Broadband Gap Analysis Study presented to the Dunn County Board January 17.

[emember_protected] The analysis is based on surveys filled out by people living in the county so areas with poor or non-existent Internet access could be identified and mapped.

All together, 16,600 Dunn County households responded to the Rural Broadband Gap Analysis Survey, along with 1,110 businesses.

The response rate was about 10 percent, said Stephanie Hintz, who worked on analyzing the data.

A 10 percent response rate is considered to be very good for a survey, Hintz noted.

The Dunn County Board’s community resources and tourism committee authorized the surveys and the gap analysis report early last year.

Internet service providers in this area will use the report as supporting information when they submit grant applications for funds to help pay for improving Internet access in Dunn County.

The report contains a number of maps to provide detail about where high speed Internet is available, where there is no Internet access and where the Internet access is slow and unreliable.

Dunn County officials and representatives for Dunn County Economic Development view good Internet access as essential for economic development.

The community resources committee and UW-Extension held a series of public meetings about rural broadband in Dunn County with the first meeting in Menomonie in April of 2016 and two other meetings during the summer in Boyceville and in Colfax.

Not satisfied

Fewer than 50 percent of the residents who responded to the survey are satisfied with their Internet service.

In some of the townships, such as Town of Lucas, Town of Hay River and Town of Sherman, almost half of the respondents (44 percent) are without any Internet access available.

Four of five (78 percent) of residential respondents indicated that “no Internet access” is the primary reason they do not have Internet service.

The surveys also revealed about one in six (17 percent) of county residents with Internet access currently have a home business, and one in five (21 percent) currently telecommute from home.

One in five (20 percent) of residents with Internet service are interested in operating a home business. One in four (23 percent) indicated they would telecommute if they had broadband access. Most of those interested in starting or growing a home business and/or telecommuting were from townships with high levels of dissatisfaction, which suggests unreliable and slow Internet service may be the roadblock, according to the report.

Of the 1,100 businesses that responded to the survey, if 21 percent said they had considered moving their business out of Dunn County because of poor Internet access, that would amount to 231 businesses.

Residential comments

The following are residential survey open ended comments included in the report:

• “Broadband is critical to economic development, social equity and individual participation in civic life. We need to find a way to insure that address does not inhibit access.”

• “Everything we do, including education, relies so much on the availability of the Internet. I really hope something can be done to allow the residents of Dunn County the opportunity to live within the 21st Century.”

• “It is unfair we have to pay more for less in rural areas to have what has become, what is necessary, to stay competitive in work, school and business.”

• “It would be nice to have other options available if you are unhappy with current subscriber whether it be speed, cost or general satisfaction.”

Business comments

The following are business survey open ended comments included in the report:

• “The speed of my current Internet is slow, and it varies from time to time. Sometimes it uploads faster, and other times it is quite slow. I worked for a business in Eau Claire up to five year ago, and the speed of our Internet is very slow in comparison. I assume it is because we live/work in a rural area.”

• “I currently run two businesses in Dunn County with a plan to start a third. I am now at a point that I cannot continue these businesses. I am falling behind in my IT capability to meet client demands. I am currently looking to move out of Dunn County. Even if I pay enormous amounts for satellite Internet, this capability does not allow for the video conferencing and large data demands of the business.”

• “I have a real estate development at [redacted]. I have lost sales because broadband was not available there. People with home businesses have bought elsewhere because broadband is not available there. This has hurt my ability to make sales that were all but done, and some backed out.”

• “We need universal Broadband because of the advantages it gives businesses and because competing businesses continue to be severely disadvantaged without it.”

• “I have a fiber optics line at my Ridgeland office. Here in Red Cedar, I have to rely on a Verizon hotspot which is frustrating with expensive, limited capacity, and speed. We cannot get AT&T or 24-7 because of ‘licensing agreements.’ I am jealous of my more rural friends who have high speed Internet and TV cable.”

• “$1,000 per month is too much for fiber for a home based business, but only decent quality option.”

“Donut hole”

While the City of Menomonie and the area around Tainter Lake have high speed Internet access, the area immediately beyond those service areas has no Internet access at all.

Carl Vandermeulen, county board supervisor from Menomonie, wondered if anyone knew why there was an area with no Internet service providers.

Addison Vang, a planner with Dunn County, said he was not sure why there were no ISPs in those areas but noted without the information being included on maps, no one would have realized the extent of the area with no Internet access.

Vandermeulen also wondered about the county’s role in trying to get Internet access to certain areas.

Bob Colson, Dunn County zoning administrator and planner, said the county would not own or operate Internet infrastructure but the county could help ISPs to find resources and could help with grant writing by providing supporting information to use.

Dunn County can keep good relationships with ISPs and help foster and broker their decisions on how to provide better Internet access, Colson said.

The broadband initiative also needs to be collaborative with the county highway department, said Steve Rasmussen, chair of the Dunn County Board.

By collaborating with the highway department, policies can be updated and changed so that when construction is ready to occur for Internet access, the county can respond rapidly and reasonably.

Grants

With the Gap Analysis report, Dunn County is prepared to direct state dollars for improving Internet access, said Paul Miller, county manager.

The state budget has $7.5 million set aside for improving rural broadband.

The report positions Dunn County well for state and federal dollars, Miller said.

The county can “broker relationships with ISPs and money sources,” he said.

Dunn County has “already taken a big step (that will) translate into real world improvements,” Miller said.

Jim Anderson, county board supervisor from Menomonie, said we have reached a point in our society where people can think they do not need broadband in the same way they thought they did not need electricity when rural electricity was installed.

Jim Zons, county board supervisor from Colfax, said when he took his nomination papers around for signatures so he could be on the ballot in the April election, he asked people about their concerns.

The two biggest concerns people have are the state of the roads and broadband, Zons said.

Areas of the county may be served by DSL, but it does not work very well, he said.

The maps in the report also show different speeds of the Internet access where it is available, Vang said.

The county can bring awareness to the ISPs about where Internet access is needed or where better access is needed, said Sheila Stori, county board supervisor from Menomonie and chair of the community resources and tourism committee.

“I have no doubt we are taking the lead in the state,” Stori said.

The grants from the state are focused on hard-wired projects, Vang said.

The maps in the report are not perfect, they do give a good idea of what is available in the county and where it is available, he said.

Dunn County is building “critical mass,” Rasmussen said, and is positioned to help Centurylink improve Internet access.

Among the surveys that were completed, Centurylink was listed as a company about which county residents expressed deep dissatisfaction.

Centurylink has received a $200 million grant through Connect America Fast, Rasmussen said.

The task now will be to convince Centurylink to use the money to install a fiber optic network to improve Internet access in Dunn County, he said.

A rough estimate is that it costs a minimum of $20,000 per mile to install a fiber optic network for Internet, and with $200 million at $20,000 per mile, that amounts to 10,000 miles of Internet access. [/emember_protected]