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.

Mary and David Ripp have been frustrated with their Internet connection as long as they’ve lived in their Town of Dunkirk home.

Those problems have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mary, who works in insurance, told the Hub she’s had to drive to the nearby McDonald’s and surrounding libraries just to be able to work.

Town of Rutland resident Paul Heritsch told the Hub of a similar circumstance last month. Anytime 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.

Heritch’s and the Ripps’ situation echoes that of many Wisconsinites who live in rural areas.

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 Hub 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.

And Rep. Gary Hebl (Dist. 46) told the Hub broadband coverage is unfortunately not a priority at the state level, despite tireless efforts to advocate for his constituents.

Addressing frustrations

The Ripps’ get their Internet service through Exede, a partner with DirecTV, Mary said.

They started with wireless provider, Evansville-based Litewire, but trees eventually blocked their signal completely.

With their current service, the couple gets 15 GB of Internet per month, for which they pay around $125 a month. Heritsch told the Hub last month he pays around $175 for his services.

Working from home complicates how much data they use, Mary said.

Once they reach the data limit, David, who works in telecommunications, said he switches off the WiFi and both use their cell phone connections.

“That’s assuming we can even get a (cell phone) signal,” he said. “In the house, it isn’t that great, but outside it does get a little better. It is restricted by hills and trees and towers being placed where they are.”

David and Mary said they both work in “very hands on” and “people facing” positions. Their slow connection makes it difficult to participate in work meetings and transfer files to one another.

“We’ve been frustrated ever since we’ve moved in,” Mary said.

Hebl told the Hub he’s heard similar complaints from his constituents who live in rural areas. But, he said, the ultimate decision comes down to money at the state level and for companies.

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.

“The technology is there, but we have to spend the money to expand it,” Hebl said. “Most company’s sole function is to make money. Anything that doesn’t create income is something they avoid.”

“It’s not something the shareholders want,” he added.

A financial roadblock

The Hub reached out to larger area providers like Spectrum, TDS and Frontier to comment on what prevents them from expanding their services to people like the Ripps.

Frontier did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while Spectrum and TDS did provide some insights.

Jean Pauk, TDS state government affairs manager, told the Hub, “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 Hub.

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