Rural connection

Efforts help expand broadband access in small communities

Posted on Jan 30, 2020 :: Insight Insider
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

While living in a rural community can offer benefits including less traffic and crime, lower cost of living and increased access to recreation and outdoor amenities, it also brings some hurdles.

For several reasons, providing reliable broadband service has long proven difficult in many of Wisconsin’s smaller communities. Without that connectivity, however, residents may be cut off from amenities urban dwellers take for granted — using the internet to research a school project, binging a series on Netflix or taking advantage of telemedicine services.

For residents in the Northwoods community of Florence and surrounding areas, having access to telepharmacy services through Crivitz Pharmacy has cut down on travel times and reduced the logistical headaches of navigating differing state laws between Wisconsin and Michigan. (Florence County borders Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.)

Ezra Gruszynski, pharmacist and owner of Crivitz Pharmacy, purchased the pharmacy in 2006 and began offering telepharmacy services at Florence Medical Center about three years ago. It’s an arrangement that underscores the importance of having broadband service in rural areas.

For Gruszysnki, who grew up in Crivitz, returning to his hometown was a natural choice. He likes the slower, more relaxed pace of life and plentiful outdoor activities the Northwoods offers. “(I like) knowing the customers, knowing the names and faces of people when you’re out and about, not just at work,” he says.

Crivitz Pharmacy rents a space in the Florence Medical Center. Pharmacy technicians staff the satellite location. They fill prescriptions as they would if they were working in Crivitz. A pharmacist in Crivitz remotely oversees the technician’s work and ensures prescriptions are filled correctly.

When the patient picks up the prescription, the pharmacist consults via a video conferencing tool, going over medications and answering any questions. It’s an experience just like a patient would have in person, Gruszynski says. Prior to the availability of the service, Florence area patients had to travel farther to get their prescriptions.

Patients who tried to pick up certain medications across the border in Michigan also encountered another issue. The laws differ between the two states for some medications, including narcotics. In Wisconsin, mid-level practitioners such as physician assistants can write prescriptions for narcotics, but in Michigan, a medical doctor or osteopathic physician must write the prescription. This meant people either had to travel farther to get the prescription filled in Wisconsin or seek an MD or DO in Michigan to write the prescription.

An everyday expectation

In 2019, Florence County wrapped up two years of broadband expansion work, funded in part through a state rural broadband expansion grant.

Wendy Gehlhoff, director of the Florence County Economic Development Corp., says the county was lucky in that Nsight had laid a lot of fiber throughout the county, meaning many areas — especially more populous ones — already had relatively strong connectivity.

The county, however, wanted to provide connectivity to residents in outlying communities such as Fence, Long Lake and Fern. Gehlhoff says the grant process took a year and required surveying and getting partners to help raise $66,000 in donations. It worked with Northwoods Connect, which extended the connectivity reach by placing equipment on three existing towers in the more rural areas.

Gehlhoff says Florence County’s population doubles with seasonal residents, and providing more reliable connectivity means those folks may stay longer. In addition, being connected to the internet has become an expectation among visitors, she says.

Florence County also has become a state-certified Telecommuter Forward region. “We would love to have folks who are able to telecommute for their jobs who would love to live in a place that’s a small community — 200,000 acres of public land. You can do all sorts of outdoor recreation and live in a small, friendly rural town that’s very safe, has a great school system and you’re not stuck in urban traffic,” Gehlhoff says.

In 2019, Shawano County also received a grant to expand broadband in rural areas of the county near Shawano Lake and west of the city. Bertram Communications is providing the area with fixed wireless service.

Door, Waushara and Green Lake counties also received grant funding in 2019, as well as outlying parts of Brown and Outagamie counties. Another grant-funded project proposes to build a fiber route from the outskirts of Appleton to Elkhart Lake, connecting several communities in Calumet, Manitowoc and Sheboygan counties.

Dennis Heling, executive director of Shawano County Economic Progress Inc., says broadband access has become a necessity for education, health care, tourism and agriculture.

“I’ve been promoting the fact that broadband is no longer a desire or a want. It’s mandatory,” he says.

No easy answer

There’s no one straightforward solution to rolling out broadband in rural areas, says Cory Heigl, vice president and general manager of Astrea, formerly known as Packlerland Broadband.

The why is simple. “You think about all those beautiful things that we take for granted in areas where we have connectivity and areas that don’t, how we can curb the erosion of that diverse rural people out there and let them thrive and be part of the rest of the world. That, today, requires an internet connection,” Heigl says.

The how is less simple. Less densely populated areas face several challenges when it comes to connectivity. One of the biggest issues is density. As phone and cable companies build infrastructure, they know building a mile of cable will cost a certain dollar amount. As they decide where to lay that cable, they look at how many houses lie within that mile. Density in a linear cable mile largely determines where companies choose to invest, Heigl says.

Companies have a homes-per-mile threshold, and too few homes in an area means a lower return on investment. The economics must make sense, Heigl says. Companies either face that low ROI or must charge more to recoup their investment.

In addition, the demographics in rural areas skew slightly poorer and a little older. “Because (population) has eroded over time, the economics are not strong in rural areas,” Heigl says.

When companies do want to provide internet service to these areas, they may face infrastructure challenges. The typical options in rural areas include mobile broadband and satellite services. Mobile typically has far reach, but data caps are a limiting factor, Heigl says. Users can watch Netflix on their phone, but they’ll usually pay by the end of the month in the form of increased costs, slower service or a combination of the two.

Satellite also has limits. Two factors define the quality of internet service: speed and latency. Speed isn’t the limiting issue with satellite but rather latency, which refers to the delay before the transfer of data begins. Urban areas typically offer the ideal combination of high speed and low latency, but many rural areas face the problem of high latency, Heigl says. High latency can make the connection feel slow, causing frustration and making applications such as internet gaming almost impossible.

When Heigl took over Iron Mountain, Mich.-based Astrea five years ago, he repeatedly heard the company’s call center agents tell customers they couldn’t help them with their desire for better connectivity. “I said, ‘We have got to find ways to not say no to these people. We can do better than that,’” he says.

That quest led Heigl to a powerful partner. He had read a Microsoft whitepaper about using TV whitespaces as a tool for rural broadband expansion. He tracked down people within the company and eventually flew to Seattle to meet with them.

When television converted from analog to digital broadcasting in 2009, it freed up a lot of spectrum, creating TV whitespaces. Microsoft, which makes money off its connected devices, has a financial as well as a philanthropic interest in increasing internet access, Heigl says.

Whitespace is a promising avenue that can help overcome some of an area’s challenges, such as in the Northwoods where much of the land is heavily forested. Typically, line of sight is required to provide internet service. TV channels, however, can travel through forests, foliage and buildings to reach homes, Heigl says.

Astrea later became the first partner in the Microsoft Airband Initiative, which aims to close the rural broadband gap. Approximately 19 million Americans, or 6 percent of the population, lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Beta testing of using TV whitespaces began with a tower Astrea owns near Sault Ste Marie, Mich. It took some trial and error, but the company successfully connected a customer in October 2018, providing that household access it had never had.

Astrea is now working on towers across Marinette County and the UP, with 12 sites in various stages of testing and readiness. By spring, it would like to commercially deploy all 12. A lot of work still lies ahead, but Heigl says Astrea is getting closer to being able to say “yes” to more customers in their desire for connectivity.

“Everybody seems genuinely excited, and we’re kind of chewing on our fingernails to get it going and really make an impact,” he says.