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04/27/2009

Rural Residents Without High-Speed Internet Struggle to Keep Up

By: Matthew DeFour, Wisconsin State Journal

Doug King publishes his keyboard music online and his wife, Marjorie, sells home-made pottery to customers in Iceland, China and New Zealand. But doing business from their rural Dane County house is virtually impossible without high-speed Internet.

"We got to the point where we’re simply unable to do business" using the dial-up Internet their phone company provides, King said. The couple finally signed up for a wireless modem from Verizon, which in the last year has sought to build nine cell towers in rural Dane County to keep up with growing demand.

But wireless service isn’t available everywhere, either, leaving thousands of rural Wisconsin homeowners, entrepreneurs and farmers still clamoring for high-speed Internet service.

Help may be on the way after Congress included $7.2 billion in the federal stimulus bill to extend high-speed Internet to rural areas.

Even so, large parts of Wisconsin may lose out on the federal funds because few citizens have responded to a statewide survey aimed at identifying which areas don’t have broadband service — an Internet connection that can process many times more voice, data and video information than dial-up phone lines.

As of April 16, the Public Service Commission, which is conducting the survey, had heard from about 3,900 citizens and businesses representing 85,000 employees. Two-thirds of respondents reported not having access to high-speed Internet service.

The PSC plans to use the survey results to advise the federal government on which local governments and service providers should get stimulus funds, said PSC telecommunications administrator Gary Evenson.

"We’d like to get responses from everyone," Evenson said. "The more responses we get the better."

Like the Kings, Stephanie Elkins, of rural Green County, turned to satellite service after waiting for broadband to come to her area, but "even that is slow and limited," she said.

In 2000, Elkins’ husband Roy founded Broadjam.com, an online music distribution company that had to move to Madison to access faster Internet. In naming the company, they anticipated broadband would be necessary for sharing music files online.

"It’s ironic that here we are 10 years later without any broadband service at our home," Elkins said.

Bill Esbeck, president of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, is skeptical the survey paints an accurate picture of broadband service in the state. He said he would rather see collaboration among telephone, wireless and cable companies to identify where service needs exist.

His concern about the federal funding is that it may come with strings attached. For example, companies that install broadband networks with grant money could be required to share any infrastructure they build.

"Clearly there are companies in Wisconsin that have already made the investment," Esbeck said. He noted a 2007 report from the Federal Communications Commission found Wisconsin telephone companies offer high-speed Internet to 81 percent of the state, one percentage point shy of the national average.

State Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, said he has fielded hundreds of complaints from constituents who still can’t get connected. "I’ve got kids who can’t access the Internet to do their homework," Schultz said. "That’s intolerable."

Schultz urged residents to respond to the PSC survey, which will be available at least until summer. Guidelines on federal grant and loan applications are expected by June.

"Our future depends on us being able to access the global marketplace," Shultz said. "We don’t want to be on the wrong side of the digital divide."

TAKE THE SURVEY

Take the Public Service Commission broadband survey at http://psc.wi.gov/recoveryAct/sfBroadband.htm. If you don’t have Internet access, call the Telecommunications Division at 608-267-2893.

Source: http://www.madison.com/wsj/home/local/448709


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