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Internet access remains an issue
CROP broadband
HIGH SPEED INTERNET remains an elusive dream for many rural residents as progress or even planned progress on improving access for many seems slow.

Despite repeated announcements about the need for improving high-speed internet access for rural areas, progress or even planned progress on making those improvements seems slow.

In Crawford County, you need go no further than the Century Link customers on Stoney Point Road in Seneca Township to see the problem. Three neighbors on Stoney Point Road got together in an attempt to improve their almost non-existent internet access.

The group started with a meeting involving Wisconsin State Senator Jennifer Shilling, state communications officials, telecommunications representatives and others. From that meeting, came the formation of an organization called UBAC (Universal Broadband Access Coalition).

The three neighbors, Emile and Camille Smith, Susie and Hughie Kinzie and the Jay McCloskey family remain committed to getting better internet access. Now with the formation of UBAC, they’ve been joined by others, who share their goal of getting high-speed internet into rural areas that are not served by it.

While many people in the area want improved internet access, none are more active in pursuing it than McCloskey. He moved to the Seneca area from the Twin Cities with plans to run his business, Transportation Insurance Professionals, from his rural farmstead. He quickly found out that the internet access he thought he would have was essentially non-existent.

McCloskey was forced to rent an office in the Gays Mills Mercantile Center to gain the high-speed internet access he needed to run his business. That’s the irony of the story—there’s really two Crawford Counties, when it comes to internet service. While McCloskey and his Stoney Point Road neighbors are Century Link telecommunications’ customers and are not offered high-speed internet access, the Richland Grant Telephone Co-operative is offering high-speed internet and increasingly fiber optic cable in other parts of Crawford County to its member customers.

In fact, Richland-Grant is the provider of fiber optic service to the Gays Mills Mercantile Center, where McCloskey currently rents an office about 10 miles from his home to utilize that high-speed internet connection so vital to his specialized transportation insurance business.

McCloskey explained the insurance business is basically a paperless endeavor at this point. High-speed internet is the lynchpin of how the modern insurance industry operates. Additionally, McCloskey’s company uses VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phones that allow people at a variety of remote locations to answer phone calls.

So what’s the status of getting CenturyLink to install high speed internet on Stoney Point Road? This would allow McCloskey to operate his business from his home on the farm. It would also bring the necessary high-speed internet connection that the Kinzies need to run Stoney Point Flowers, their flower farm, and that the Smiths need to run their business, Sebastian’s Specialty Hardwoods.

Well, McCloskey, acting as UBAC’s point man, tracked down Wally Purdun, CenturyLink Area Operations Manager-Southeastern District. Purdun confirmed what McCloskey and the other UBAC members knew. CenturyLink has CAF II (Connect America Fund)  money from the federal government intended to bring high-speed internet to unserved rural areas. The funding is scheduled to be used for CenturyLink customers in rural Seneca and Freeman Townships in 2021.

McCloskey asked Purdun what the chances of getting the high speed internet installed earlier were and Purdun repeated that current plan is install a high-speed internet connection in 2021.

Angie Dickison, Wisconsin’s State Broadband Director, is encouraging McCloskey, his neighbors and others to work with CenturyLink to get access to broadband internet.

“I can completely understand the frustration with waiting four years,” Dickison acknowledged. However, she remained hopeful that with federal funding in CAF II already committed and more funding added on the state level to make broadband accessible in rural areas that it will happen.

“I believe access to high speed broadband internet is critical for rural community,” Dickison said. “It’s crucial for the economic vitality of the state.”

Dickison noted Governor Scott Walker recognized the importance of access to reliable high-speed broadband internet and recently added more state money toward the efforts to expand that access. So, the state’s broadband director remains hopeful that broadband access is being expanded.

Dickison urged anyone with questions about access to broadband high-speed internet to call her office at 608-267-9138.

While Dickison thinks CenturyLink will ultimately provide high-speed internet to the folks on Stoney Point Road and their rural neighbors, some people are skeptical.

McCloskey is concerned that that when the broadband internet is installed that it includes bringing fiber optic cable to farms. He thinks CenturyLink might just run fiber optic cable along the roadway and then use copper cable to bring it to residences and businesses-decreasing speeds.

On Tuesday, Jan. 24, Purdun responded with an email answering three questions McCloskey had asked about CenturyLink’s plans to use CAF II money to install broadband internet in Crawford County and particularly in the Seneca area.

McCloskey asked for a list of all communities in Wisconsin for which CenturyLink received funding and dates by which upgrades are to be completed.

“As you know CAF II is based on FCC determined eligible census blocks and in order to get the funds, CenturyLink is required to enable broadband speed of 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up to 129,203 living units within the eligible census blocks by 2021,” Purdun wrote in response. “The 129,203 living units are 77 percent of the total living units in the eligible census blocks.  As a result, not all living units within the eligible census blocks will be enabled….The FCC also requires periodic reporting and has set a requirement that 40 percent of the living units in their serving areas by the end of 2017. Therefore, the funds are going to go where CenturyLink can meet those requirements. The funds are for the rural areas that are under served or have no Internet at all. Prairie du Chein’s rural area meets that criteria just as Seneca does. However Prairie du Chien serves a larger area than Seneca and the population base is denser than Seneca’s.  CenturyLink does not publically disclose the specific CAF build plans due to competitive concerns and that those plans may change over the six years of the CAF II build. CenturyLink will publically announce once an area is enabled.”

McCloskey also asked in his November 29 email that Purdun respond to a previous question and “…confirm that the Seneca Exchange will be upgraded with fiber and we will be able to get fiber service wired to our farms.”

“As far as CenturyLink’s specific plans for Seneca exchange, CenturyLink doesn’t disclose these details because of competitor concerns and the technology changes,” Purdun wrote in response. “Meaning that what would be done today might not be the way it’s done five years from now.”

In response to McCloskey’s final question about the possibility of installing a relay station from the fiber optic cable already running by the properties on Stoney Point Road, Purdun said it’s “not cost effective to install (such) a device on Stoney Point road at this time.”

Those answers just raised more questions for McCloskey. He questioned why only 77 percent of the living units in the designated census blocks would receive service.

Another resident, who recently purchased a residence near Seneca and is struggling to get high-speed internet access to work remotely, wrote to UBAC about the situation. She explained that her efforts to receive service from CenturyLink now and even into the future would be frustrated because her residence was listed as “permanently exhausted.” This apparently happened because a previous resident had stopped using CenturyLink service in 2013, she noted.

UBAC’s McCloskey raised several questions in light of Purdun’s e-mail response.

“If the 129,203 units are 77 percent of the living units in rural Wisconsin to get service w/ CAF II funds, this means that the other 23 percent that will not get service represent 38,593 living units,” McCloskey wrote in an e-mail statement. “That’s shocking!  I suspect that these will be determined by Century Link, and not by people living in those units letting CenturyLink know they aren’t interested in having internet service.  Effectively, this may mean there are, or will be, 38,593 ‘permanently exhausted’ living units.  This is only for CenturyLink.  If other ISP’s are also following the 77 percent standard, that means there will be a significantly greater number of rural residents that will not get any internet service from their ILEC.  It seems that legislative action may be necessary to address this. 

“I maintain UBAC’s staunch advocacy for fiber to the homes and farms of ALL residents in Crawford County that want internet service, and ideally for all of Wisconsin’s rural residents,” McCloskey wrote. “I’m looking forward to our meeting, soon to be scheduled, to discuss our plans for accomplishing this.”

Among the concerns UBAC has are the required broadband speed of 10 mbps download and a 1 Mbps upload required by the CAF II grants.

It has been pointed out that in 2015 the FCC revised those minimum standards for broadband speeds to a 25 Mbps download and a 3 Mbps upload. However, CAF II still only requires the slower speeds.

Many take issue with any of those speeds being appropriate for installation at this time.

CenturyLink is not providing a long-term solution by installing broadband internet with speeds of just 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, according to Chris Mitchell, the Director of the Community Broadband Network Program at the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

“What Jay is saying is absolutely right,” Mitchell said. The broadband expert agreed speeds at the new standard are the minimum. Mitchell feels the more appropriate speeds are actually 40 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up.