Diana Albrecht didn’t have to worry about depending on her Internet service provider to teach her students until COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March.
The Town of Oregon resident and Edgewood High School teacher lives near Lincoln and Fish Hatchery roads west of the Village of Oregon in a neighborhood of around 20 people. She said the problems she’s faced with service providers have been ludicrous for not living “out in the middle of nowhere.”
Albrecht has since resumed in-person teaching for the 2020-21 school year, she told the Observer, but last spring, she had to make various accommodations just to assign homework and lessons virtually from home.
Her situation echoes that of her neighbors and many other Wisconsinites who live in rural areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. They need an Internet connection to work, to access healthcare, to take classes and even to bank.
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” like Spectrum, Frontier, TDS, according to the WCIJ report.
The WCIJ report states “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.”
TDS and Spectrum told the Observer that while they’ve greatly expanded their coverage areas, there’s more work that needs to be done. Frontier did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Rep. Don Vruwink (Dist. 43) said broadband coverage is unfortunately not a priority at the state level, despite tireless efforts to advocate for his constituents.
Albrecht, who used to get service through Frontier, switched to satellite provider HughesNet as of a year and a half ago.
While her connection with HughesNet isn’t as poor as it was through Frontier, she said, she had to purchase a Verizon jetpack device, which helps boost internet speeds. All that costs her around $100 per month, she estimated.
Before getting the jetpack, Albrecht had to rely on her teacher’s aide to educate her students using video conferencing software. Albrecht uploaded daily lessons onto an education app called Seesaw, where her students would complete them for her to view and grade later.
She said she switched to HughesNet after being left without the Internet for almost a month. Technicians would come out to her house, but the problem never seemed to resolve, she said.
“At the very end, I called and canceled my service, I had an $80 bill with them,” Albrecht said.
She told Frontier she was not going to pay the bill after being left without an Internet connection. After multiple phone calls, the company resolved to have Albrecht foot only half the bill.
Frontier did not respond to multiple attempts to get comment on specific complaints like Albrecht’s.
Vruwink said he’s heard similar complaints from his constituents who live in rural areas.
He referred to Wisconsin as one of the worst states in the Midwest for broadband, echoing the WCIJ report findings.
People don’t move there because of the lack of internet, he said, and companies can’t turn a profit where there are few customers.
And at the state level, broadband isn’t a priority, Vruwink said, despite the various bills he has authored and co-authored. The “political infighting” is what prevents the Senate and House from moving forward,” he said.
“That’s what infuriates me,” Vruwink said.
A financial roadblock
Spectrum and TDS, who also serve the Oregon area, both said serving rural areas is expensive and difficult.
Jean Pauk, TDS state government affairs manager, told the Observer, “the answer to that really is the more rural an area is, the more costly it is to serve.”
“All of our facilities are capital intensive for us to build for customers,” Pauk said.
For example, she said, to install fiber optic cables to reach electronic locations, “we are seeing (costs ranging from) $50,000 to $70,000 … that’s just the fiber.” When that installation is done in a sparsely populated area, she estimated it takes about 17 years to “earn a return on investment.”
Echoing the WCIJ report, Pauk said an area’s topography can greatly affect how far a company can expand its coverage area. She said there is “no obligation” to try.
Kimberly Noetzel, Spectrum senior communications manager, spoke to similar hurdles, though less specifically.
She and Missy Kellor, TDS associate manager of the TDS communication’s team, both emphasized the companies are working continuously to expand their networks and invest in their customers, especially during the health crisis.
“We are continuing to make upgrades and doing everything we can to provide those faster speeds that our customers are demanding,” Kellor told the Observer.