Getting connected

Plans underway to bring reliable broadband access to Northwoods

Posted on Sep 27, 2018 :: Economic Development
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Cory Heigl thinks he has the solution for the biggest barrier — cost — that is keeping broadband internet coverage from reaching northern Wisconsin communities.

“Taking advantage of TV white spaces — those frequencies between TV stations — is the best way we can get everyone broadband coverage,” says Heigl, vice president of Packerland Broadband in Iron Mountain, Mich. “Broadband access is important for so many reasons: It’s for kids who need it to do their homework, it can be used for telemedicine and for people who want to work from home.”

Earlier this year, Packerland Broadband and Microsoft announced a plan to provide broadband access to more than 80,000 people in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula by 2022. The initiative is part of Microsoft’s larger TechSpark plan, which the tech giant launched a year ago to expand broadband across northern and eastern Wisconsin and foster IT and job growth in and around Green Bay and the Fox Cities.

White space in the TV spectrum is created by the space between VHF and UHF signals. Several years ago, the Federal Communications Commission made that space available for unlicensed public use. Using special equipment and a software program, the channels can be used to access broadband internet connectivity. Wi-Fi hardware is then used to connect existing wireless and fiber cable systems.

The equipment consumers and installers need to use to open the frequencies is expensive, but Heigl says Microsoft is using its market position to get that cost down.

Packerland Broadband expects to have 34,000 people connected by the end of 2019, with the total rising to 80,000 by 2022.

Wisconsin counties included in the plan are Marinette, Forest, Florence, Oconto, Langlade, Oneida, Marathon, Clark, Wood, Portage, Eau Claire, Ashland, Iron, Douglas, Juneau, Vernon, Dodge, Outagamie, Chippewa and Price. Michigan counties in the plan are Dickinson, Iron, Menominee, Chippewa, Mackinac, Luce and Gogebic.

Packerland Broadband’s plan is just one in the works to help expand coverage through the Northwoods. In Florence County, antennas are being added to two existing towers, and a third tower may be built to boost broadband coverage.

Wendy Gehlhoff, economic development director for Florence County, says providing high-speed internet access to every residence would be a boost to the region’s economy since a survey found that more seasonal residents would stay at their vacation home longer if they had high-speed internet.

“Some summer residents leave because they need to get back home or work where they have better internet to get their work done,” Gehlhoff says. “Studies show seasonal residents will spend an additional 30 nights if they have access to broadband. The longer they stay here, the better it is for the economy.”

In addition, Gehlhoff adds, “so much in our world relies on high-speed internet. Not being able to offer that to all of our residents can put us at a disadvantage.”

The extension of broadband coverage through Florence County has been a “long process,” Gehlhoff says. The county received a Wisconsin Rural Partners Initiative PSC State Broadband Expansion Grant, and she says 17 entities in the area and some private residents helped raise $66,000 to match an equal amount from the state.

“This is something we’ve all worked together on and it’s good to see it come to fruition,” Gehlhoff says.

While the more rural parts of the Northwoods look to secure reliable broadband coverage as a way to spark economic development, Marinette — the area’s largest city — is looking to its business incubator to launch new businesses and create more jobs.

The Wisconsin Maritime Center of Excellence is a combination of permanent space for businesses, including Fincantieri Marinette Marine — the region’s largest employer — which rents out a portion, and an incubator for startups and entrepreneurs looking to take that next step, says Teresa O’Brien, operations manager for the Marinette County Association for Business and Industry Inc., which runs the center.

“Providing a place where entrepreneurs can rent out an office or other space is a real difference maker. We have one person here who worked from home and met her clients in McDonald’s. Now she’s a virtual member and can come in to use our conference room,” O’Brien says.

The 23,795-square-foot office offers a mix of office space, collaborative work areas and flexible manufacturing space. There are also plans in place to put in a makerspace that provides technology, manufacturing equipment and educational opportunities to the public.

“Our role here is to help build the local economy and help entrepreneurs as they build up their businesses without worrying about overhead expenses, such as copying equipment or telephone use, since it’s all included in the monthly rent,” O’Brien says. “Our area needs a space like this to help the local economy grow.”