Paul Heritsch

Paul Heritsch and his family live in a hobby farm in the Town of Rutland. He said he’s had to sit in a McDonald’s parking lot just to download files for work since his Internet connection is so slow working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When Town of Rutland resident Paul Heritsch started working from home in March, he quickly discovered he couldn’t stay there.

Despite paying $175 a month for broadband access, any time Heritsch needed to download large files for his job as a senior finance manager, he would drive to the nearest McDonald’s and sit in the parking lot to use the business’ free WiFi connection.

“A significant drawback of living in a rural setting has been reinforced during this quarantine period, which is the pathetic state of broadband access in rural America,” Heritsch told the Observer.

Heritsch, who normally works in Middleton, lives on a hobby farm with his wife and seven children, six of whom are attending three different schools in the Stoughton Area School District. And since COVID-19 became a pandemic that shut down Dane County schools on March 13, his work has had to compete with his children’s virtual education for internet access.

Heritsch’s family gets satellite Internet through Viasat – which he said was the only service available when they moved to Rutland last August. The connection, he said, is “dreadfully slow.”

His story echoes that of many residents who live in rural areas around Oregon and elsewhere across the nation – they consistently experience slow Internet speeds and a lack of provider choices, and that problem has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Some, like Heritsch, have difficulties connecting to the Internet for work, while others have lost and continue to lose out on mobile banking services, telemedicine visits and educational opportunities.

Town of Oregon resident Diana Albrecht is an educator who didn’t have to worry about depending on her Internet service provider to teach her students until the pandemic forced everyone to scramble. Now, Albrecht said, she has to rely on her teacher’s aide to educate her students over Zoom, since the software lags for her.

Mary Smith, who lives in the same neighborhood of around 20 people as Albrecht, near Lincoln and Fish Hatchery roads west of the village, said she faces similar problems to Albrecht’s.

“Let’s say I want to see my doctor (virtually) for COVID-19,” Smith said. “I don’t think I could do that.”

Wisconsin has lagged behind the national average in broadband coverage, according to a March Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism report. An estimated 43% of the state’s rural residents lack access to high speed Internet, compared with about 31% of them nationwide, a Public Service Commission of Wisconsin report states.

But sparsely populated areas are not “enticing for private companies," according to the WCIJ report.

Heritsch, Albrecht and Smith all said they receive advertisements from such companies in the mail, even though they can’t use their services. They said the providers claim they don’t have the funds available to put in the infrastructure required to deliver high speed broadband.

The WCIJ report echoed that, saying “the cost of burying miles of fiber optic cables – one of the fastest growing and most reliable ways to deliver the Internet – can be prohibitive.”

“Rural residents instead might need to rely on less dependable forms of internet delivery by satellite or wireless,” the report reads. “And those can be affected by factors including weather, trees and topography.”

To curb such costs, Gov. Tony Evers had proposed adding nearly $75 million to the Broadband Expansion Access program in his 2019-20 budget. But the state’s Joint Committee on Finance, which writes the budget, scaled that back to $44 million, according to the report.

That’s a step in the right direction, but still not as far as Minnesota has gone, having invested $108 million in broadband infrastructure, according to the WCIJ report. Compared to Wisconsin’s 43%, only 16% of rural residents in Minnesota lack access to high-speed internet.

If a state or private companies don’t have incentives to bury more fiber optic cables, municipalities can build their own systems.

For example, the City of Reedsburg owns an independently operated utility, which builds and maintains its own fiber network. The city delivers rapid, 1,000 mbps download and upload speeds between $45 and $50 a month. But Brett Schehuppner, Reedsburg Utility Commission general manager, told the WCIJ he doesn’t see other utilities willing to take it on unless state and local elected officials push it.

There are also hybrid approaches, such as the Town of Dunn’s 2018 use of state Public Service Commission grants that were expected to bring 1,600 homes high-speed broadband. One of those grants brought fiber to around 100 homes near the north end of Hawkinson Road, through Charter, and another, through Four Lakes Broadband, provided wireless internet by transmitting a signal from the McFarland water tower to reach around 1,500 homes.

The Four Lakes Broadband grant allowed the company to also install a tower at the Town of Dunn Hall, located at 4156 County Road B, planning and land conservation director Ben Kollenbroich told the Observer Tuesday, July 14.

“The more internet providers we can have in rural communities, the better,” Kollenbroich said.

Reporting from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism contributed to this story.