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Telecommuters may be the future for rural areas

DRIFTLESS - It’s called telecommuting and it’s in the process of changing just about everything in the United States right now—from economics and employment to culture and demographics. No only that, but it seems telecommuting is poised to make some big changes in rural communities like Gays Mills and Soldiers Grove.

What is telecommuting? It’s a fancy way of saying ‘working from home,’ in most cases.

Right now, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin is promoting an initiative called Telecommuting Forward! On Tuesday, June 26, the PSC finalized a model resolution and application process for communities to become a Telecommuter Forward! Certified Community.

The 2017 Act 342, authored by Wisconsin State Representative Romaine Quinn (R-Barron) and State Senator Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), created a process for communities to become certified by the PSC as a Telecommuter Forward! Community.

In order to become certified, Wisconsin cities, villages, towns or counties must adopt a resolution that includes a statement of support and commitment to promote telecommuting. The resolution must also designate a single point of contact for coordinating telecommuting opportunities. The contact is responsible for coordinating with telecommuting stakeholders and collaborating with broadband providers and employers.

"Thanks to private and public investment in broadband infrastructure, Telecommuter Forward! Certification will serve as another economic development tool to promote the vitality of Wisconsin's rural communities," according to State Broadband Director Angie Dickison. "Wisconsin is the first state in the country with a certification program to promote telecommuting."

However, it’s not just the Wisconsin State Legislature, the PSC and the state’s broadband director who are excited by Telecommuter Forward! Certification. Broadband providers, like the Richland Grant Telephone Cooperative, are also excited by the telecommuting possibilities.

“I’m all for it,” RGTC General Manager John Bartz said of the Telecommuter Forward! Certification. RGTC provides the possibility for any residence or business in their service area to be served by fiber optic cable. The upload/download speeds offered on the fiber optic cable are truly astounding.

Bartz was quick to point out that RGTC is ‘Gig Certified’ by the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association. This means they are among broadband providers that can provide customers with up to a gigabyte of the download speed.

The Independent-Scout currently buys 100mb down and 50mb up for $75 per month from RGTC.

While Bartz definitely sees the future possibilities of telecommuting, his friend Cliff Albertson is a true apostle of telecommuting and its transformative role in rural communities.

Cliff Albertson is the Executive Vice President of Badger Communications, a company that sells telecommunications equipment to Richland Grant and a host of other providers.

“Fiber optic is the engine of economic development,” Albertson said without hesitation. “If we don’t have proper infrastructure, we will be left behind.”

Albertson noted that the Richland-Grant Co-op invested a lot their own time and money into installing and upgrading broadband internet connectivity in their service area.

“There’s so many jobs where you can work from home if you have the bandwidth,” Albertson said. “It opens the world to young people.”

“It allows rural communities to attract people with jobs,” Albertson explained. “Many people mistakenly think the only way population will increase in rural areas is through immigration. That’s not true at all. There are so many people now who want to get out of the larger cities.”

Albertson cited some facts from a study done by Benjamin S. Winchester, a Senior Research Fellow at the Extension Center for Community Vitality at the University of Minnesota. Winchester found:

• 30 to 49 year olds are moving to rural communities across the U.S. and bandwidth is vital

• the top three reasons: slower pace of life, safety and the low cost of housing

• many are self-employed or remote workers

• 33 percent had previous contact with the area

• 51 percent had children

• 68 percent have college degrees

That study is probably good news for rural communities because:

• the population of rural America continues to decline

• 85 percent of persistent poverty counties are located in rural areas

• the childhood poverty rate increased nearly one third since 2001—27 percent of rural children are living in poverty households

So, is high-speed broadband internet, and the telecommuting it can engender, the transformative fix for what rural America needs? Perhaps, or at least a lot of people seem to think so.

Driftless Development Executive Director Jim Bowman is one of those people.

“We lost 5.1 percent of Crawford County’s population from the 2000 Census to the 2010 Census,” the economic development professional pointed out. “We need to get them back. We actually only need a few people to move here to make up for that loss. We’re not talking about that many people. Just some people who are tired of the urban issues. People would love living here. You can live very affordably, but there will be no growth without the internet. Where you are seeing growth, especially attracting youth and young families, you’ve got internet.

“Organic Valley is an example,” Bowman said. “They have a lot of people working remotely. It’s an important issue to them.”

So what about Telecommuter Forward! Certification?

“Well, I think it’s a way for the state to energize communities to really get connectivity,” Bowman said. “It’s a first step. Then, it can be used for marketing.

“Connectivity translates into economic and social activity,” Bowman noted. “But what is it, unless you do something with it.

“Now we have connectivity, but what are we doing with it? What could we do with it? What should we do with it? And, what will we do with it?” Bowman asks. “We need a strategic action plan.”

In Gays Mills, Bowman can see the creation of a computer business-training center in the empty space at the Mercantile Center. It’s a place where people of any age can learn to use today’s technology and build businesses, according to Bowman.

So, where is local government with approving the resolution to get Telecommuter Forward! Certification?

Both the Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills village boards have placed the ‘Telecommuter Forward!’ Certification Resolution on their agendas for their August meetings.

“I think it’s a smart thing to do,” Gays Mills Village President Harry Heisz said of the resolution certifying the village supports telecommuting opportunities. “It’s a way we can draw people here and since we have it (fiber optic cable) already, it’s a plus to let people know what’s available here.”