Thoughts of a new school year are in the air, and many rural Wisconsin residents are unsure how to plan for the back-to-school madness that usually occurs each August. With the shift from in-person classrooms to virtual, at-home learning environments at the end of the last school year, no one exactly knows what this school year will look like. What does seem inevitable, though, is that at least some elements of the 2020–21 school year will depend on an internet connection.
The pandemic only underscores the need for high-speed internet, with many rural residents forced to work from home or facilitate virtual learning for their school-age children.
Some of Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives have been partnering in bringing high-speed broadband to underserved areas of rural Wisconsin. In January, and before the scope and magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic were even known, the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association identified expanding broadband as one of its top legislative priorities for the coming year. Since then, electric co-op leaders have made progress on this issue at every level.
In the March 2020 issue of this publication, we featured the story “Getting Up to Speed,” which profiled Chippewa Valley Electric Cooperative’s (CVEC) efforts to bring high-speed broadband to its members. The co-op’s efforts, through an entity called Ntera, had been outpacing expectations for expansion before the pandemic. In hindsight, they are glad they were able to get into as many homes as they did.
“We made a lot of folks happy,” said Russ Falkenberg, director of IT & member services at CVEC, referring to members with newly installed high-speed access when the need was at its highest. And the need will only continue to grow. Falkenberg also said that cellular providers are swamped and unpractical, underscoring the need for the resiliency of a fiber network.
Ntera continues to expand its territory and work with more rural leaders to meet the need. “Our goal is to serve every Chippewa Valley Electric member and the surrounding communities,” said Falkenberg.
Governor Tony Evers created the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access in mid-July. The task force will advise the governor and state legislature on broadband actions and policy, including strategies for successfully expanding high-speed internet access.
“The task force will bring together experts from across the state to research and recommend solutions that state leaders can adopt to connect every person in Wisconsin,” said Governor Tony Evers.
Shannon Clark, CEO and general manager at Richland Electric Cooperative, has been named as one of those experts on the task force. Clark brings considerable expertise to the table, including his experience launching the consortium that became Genuine Telecom, a telecommunications company providing telecommunications services including high-speed internet to businesses and homes in the Richland County area. Clark also serves as board chairman for the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative.
“I’m honored to serve Wisconsin in this capacity. For over 20 years, I’ve tried to drive home the point that policy decisions can incentivize rural broadband deployment or hamper it. The economics of deploying ubiquitous broadband throughout Wisconsin is challenge enough—we’ve got to ensure that policy drives broadband deeper into rural Wisconsin, not create barriers,” said Clark.
On the national level, electric cooperatives pushed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require Rural Digital Opportunity Fund bidding areas to be based on census block groups, which will help electric co-ops better compete for FCC funding. The commission also voted to prohibit low earth orbit satellite projects from bidding in the gigabit tier. Both orders are in support of requests made by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
It’s likely some form of online learning will still be necessary for the upcoming school year as the pandemic situation is still so fluid. The 2020 spring semester exposed just how much the lack of rural broadband is causing a great divide between rural and urban communities and putting rural kids behind academically. As always, Wisconsin’s electric cooperatives are working to close that divide. Eighty-plus years ago, we did it by bringing electricity into rural areas. Today, we’re putting in extra effort to help expand broadband access into rural Wisconsin communities.