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Rural Wisconsin Businesses & Residents Eager for Broadband Expansion

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Many people who live in urban areas take high-speed internet for granted. But in parts of rural Wisconsin, internet service is slow or unreliable. 

State and federal lawmakers are working to expand broadband access. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson held a couple of meetings in Milwaukee on Monday to discuss the issue and search for answers.

Aprelle Rawski of Rhinelander is a typical, frustrated computer user. "It's just unbelievable. You're constantly being kicked out of your computer, no matter what you do. It just says: 'Internet Explorer stopped working. Goodbye.'"

Rawski says her internet service provider tells her too many people are using the system. So she goes online at 10 p.m. or later, yet still can't depend on a stable signal.

The problem in some rural areas and smaller cities is that no one has yet installed the cables or wireless systems that can send high-speed internet into homes and businesses. Some residents have found workarounds to the slow, spotty service.

Fred Bouwman works for Ministry Health Care. He lives in Three Lakes, where he has satellite internet service. "It deteriorates with weather conditions," he explains. "It's fast enough to do some shopping and a few other things, but I can't work from home with that connection. I have to drive into Eagle River, which is a half hour each way, every day."

"[Internet access today] is kind of like electricity in the 1920s."

Some people use cell phones, if they live in areas where they can get a strong signal. TV ads promoting data plans are in heavy rotation. Others take matters into their own hands.

Phil Hejtmanek is trying to get a small tower built near his lakeside home to send a broadband signal from a regional service provider to nearby houses. He says fast, reliable internet service is a necessity for most people, including children who have to use computers to do their homework.

"It's kind of like electricity in the 1920s. You know, the people in town had it. The people out on the farm didn't. And pretty soon the people on the farm were unable to do their job without it, and so we had to make an effort to bring that technology out to those folks," Hejtmanek says.

Don Sidlowski of the Northwoods Broadband & Economic Development Coalition predicts it'll take 5-10 years before "every nook and cranny" in the state has high-speed internet. He says the state and federal governments are giving companies millions of dollars to increase access in remote areas.

But Sidlowski says it's a time-consuming process. Because Wisconsin has so many rural expanses and lakes, he says the companies have to craft the appropriate system for each location.

"We call it a creative patchwork quilt of solutions. You're going to have some wired, some wireless. Some of it's going to be DSL. Some of it's going to be cable. Some of it's going to be fiber. But you got to take what you can get -- where you can get it -- in a rural area, and recognize that there's going to be no universal solution," Sidlowski says.

Ann-Elise Henzl became News Director in September 2017.
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