Three Crawford County neighbors decided they had about enough of slow and inadequate internet service and they set out to do something about it. Their goal is simple—they want to have high speed internet provided to their rural residences and businesses located on Stoney Point Road in Seneca Township.
The three rural neighbors, responsible for calling a meeting with officials to discuss the situation, are all customers of Century Tel and Century Link. They include Hughie and Susie Kinzie, owners of Stoney Point Flowers; Emile and Camille Smith, owners of Sebastian Hardwoods; and Jay McCloskey and his family, owners of Transportation Insurance Professionals.
All three families feel frustrated by the lack of any broadband service being offered by Century Tel. The feeling of frustration is being intensified because some nearby customers of the Richland Grant Telephone Co-operative now have fiber optic service to their residences and businesses. Not only that, in many cases the fiber optic replaced copper cable that had already been in place for years for co-op customers.
McCloskey’s transportation-based insurance business is almost entirely reliant on internet connectivity. When he moved part of his family here from the Twin Cities a year ago, the plan was to get broadband internet and work from home.
That might have worked if McCloskey and his family had purchased one of the first homes they looked at off County C in Utica Township. That house was serviced by Richland-Grant. A service representative from the co-op stated that there was fiber optic cable in the area and it could be installed to the residence as soon as the ground thawed in the spring.
Ultimately, McCloskey opted to buy a farm on Stoney Point Road. However, not without receiving assurances from a Century Tel service representative that adequate internet service could be provided. After sending a crew to test their line service, McCloskey was told they would get 3 mgb up and 25 mgb down. When the service was actually installed, the got .03 mgb up and .34 mgb down. That’s slower than old-fashioned dialup access was.
The Century Tel internet service was so bad on Stoney Point Road that McCloskey was forced to rent an office 10 miles away in the Gays Mills Mercantile Center, where Richland-Grant hooked him up to their recently installed fiber optic cable.
Despite being able to work from the Gays Mills office on insurance business, McCloskey and his family still badly want broadband internet access at their residence both to use in their business and other endeavors. After all, they had intended to establish their office at their farm.
When McCloskey talked to his neighbors, the Kinzies and the Smiths, he realized the situation was a problem for everyone involved. He had heard Senator Shilling talking about the need to get broadband internet into the rural areas, so he decided to contact her.
It started with a simple call to Wisconsin State Senator Jennifer Shilling’s office and it just took off from there. Last Friday, the neighbors met with the senator and her aide, Kara Pennoyer; as well as Karrie Jackelen, a Deputy District Director for Congressman Ron Kind, and David Medinger, a Regional Representative of U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin. In addition to the political force on hand, the group was joined by Maria Alvarez-Stroud, the Director of the Broadband & E-Commerce Education Center for UW-Extension; Will Cronin, a Crawford County UW-Extension official; Angie Dickinson, from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s Wisconsin Broadband Office; Jarad Hall, Century Link’s Area Plan Supervisor; and Nick Levondosky, the Government Relations Representative for Farmer’s Union.
After some introductions, each of the neighbors told their stories and how the lack of fiber optic service and broadband internet is impacting their families, their businesses and the larger community.
McCloskey said even though Century Tel has fiber optic cable running down the road in front of their houses to service to customers in Ferryville, the service is not available to him or his neighbors.
“Century Link will not hook us up,” McCloskey said. “I have talked about this with two levels of supervisors.”
The frustrated insurance company owner told those at the meeting that the insurance business is now completely dependent on broadband internet.
“The industry has become paperless,” McCloskey said.
Emile Smith, whose company provides a variety of wood products including flooring, told those at the meeting that access to broadband internet service was absolutely vital for maintaining the economic health of the community. Smith sees high speed internet as vital in keeping and attracting retirees to the area, as well as for providing for the education of school children.
The Smiths and Kinzies both said the internet was critical to the success of their businesses for sales marketing and communicating with customers. They indicated the lack of high speed internet severely limits their businesses and opportunities.
“Our college-aged children all want to come back, but they can’t because there is a lack of jobs,” Smith explained.
McCloskey echoed Smith’s thoughts on jobs.
“It’s reverse migration, people can move to the country and work remotely, if there’s the internet connectivity,” he explained.
Both neighbors noted that Century Tel had been given a grant by the federal government to bring broadband internet to underserved communities.
Century Link’s Jarad Hall began to address some of the neighbors concerns and questions about government funding the company is receiving.
Hall said the grant applied for by Ferryville was a specific grant to bring fiber optic cable to that village.
The PSC’s Angie Dickinson confirmed what Hall said. She explained it was a state broadband expansion grant specific to the community that brought high speed internet to Ferryville.
Dickinson also said that the larger providers like ATT, Century Link and Frontier were getting money through Connect America Funds. Century Link will receive $332 million in CAF II money to use upgrading high-speed internet access in Wisconsin over a six-year period to increase broadband access. There has been almost $9.5 million allocated for upgrading access to high-speed internet in Crawford County.
Dickinson and Hall told those at the meeting that expanding broadband internet access would be prioritized using census blocks. So, essentially underserved areas with higher population density would be the first to see service upgrades to broadband.
To this end, Hall said he believed Prairie du Chien will be done (have fiber optic cable installed) this fall and Darlington will be upgraded soon after that. Denser populations will be the first to receive broadband, which didn’t sound particularly promising for the neighbors on Stoney Point Road.
Senator Shilling said she believed there were “some missed opportunities in Crawford County” and cited a constituent that simply could not get the necessary bandwidth to work from home for Organic Valley. This forced the employee to do long commutes for work even though there was some fiber optic cable not far away from her house. The senator called it one example of many that she has heard.
Century Link’s Hall sensed the frustration of the neighbors.
“If there was a way I could make it work, I would,” the Century Link manager told those assembled for the meeting.
Dickinson told the neighbors and others that there was a perfect opportunity to talk about broadband expansion. She said funding for next year was allocated, but there could be additional funding for next year available.
“You’ve got a network here,” Dickinson told the neighbors.
The PSC official went on to explain CAF II monies and the increased bandwidth it is intended to provide.
Dickinson described efforts town and county boards can do to coordinate streamlining of ordinances aimed at easing the introduction of broadband. Dickinson referred to this as “Putting out the welcome mat.”
UW-Extension’s Alvarez-Stroud was also excited by the possibilities she could see coming from the neighbors and the meeting.
“You have a great, great start,” she told those at the meeting. “Now, you have to expand the group. You need to find others who have the same concerns. How many others are there.
Camille Smith said she had a call from the DeSoto area from a resident saying the improved Internet was not what it was supposed to be.
Emile noted that many area resident see the broad band internet as something that will mean new neighbors and they don’t want to see new neighbors.
Alvarez-Stroud said that kind of resistance was shifting now. She noted it used to be said the elderly rejected the internet. However, it's turned into a way for them to stay in their homes, while remaining connected.
“It’s a real learning process,” Alvarez-Stroud said.
“The elephant in the room is we have three businesses in a row here and it’s important that we have broad band internet access.
Dickinson cited work done on how to expand broadband by clustering demand.
Hall explained a concept called bandwidth exhaustion that can occur.
“If you oversell it you won’t get the bandwidth you wanted,” Hall said.
However, Hall indicated that concentration of use is what drove the development of broadband access. So, it wasn’t necessarily businesses, but the residential users in neighborhoods that created that concentration.
Dickinson urged people to respond to a survey about the need for broadband internet. She said she hoped people appreciated the irony that it was an online survey.
However there is a call-in portion with a person answering the phone and recording the answers.
The survey will be open through Thanksgiving and those taking it are being asked if they will allow their address to be mapped and bout 90 percent are agreeing.
John Medinger, the regional aide to U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, acknowledged broadband access was the hot topic lately.
“This is the topic wherever I go,” Medinger said.
Shilling advised the neighbors that in the legislative process it’s “the squeaky wheel” that gets attention.
In answer to a question from the neighbors, Century Tel’s Hall compared the build out of broadband internet to the construction of a spider web. The start of the web being in Prairie du Chien where the majority of the 17,000 county residents live.
UW-Extension’s Alvarez-Stroud advised people to attend a December 6 Statewide Boot Camp on Broadband Access, which intends to move the process from talk to action.
The energized neighbors from Stoney Point Road seem to have taken some of the advice to heart and are ready to find people with the same concerns about receiving adequate broadband internet service. To that end, they’ve formed the Universal Broadband Access Coalition (UBAC). They urge anyone interested in getting better internet service to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling Jay McCloskey at 608-521-0279.