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Rural broadband service coming to libraries, schools - but not homes

By: Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

High-speed Internet access could be coming to rural Wisconsin schools and libraries soon, but it could be years before the service is available to businesses and homes in some areas - if it's ever available.

Gov. Jim Doyle said Thursday that Wisconsin will receive nearly $23 million in federal stimulus money to provide high-speed, or broadband, Internet access to 467 sites in 380 communities.

More than 200 miles of fiber-optic cable will be installed to bring the service to 385 libraries and 82 schools.

The cable could improve police, fire department and hospital communications in rural areas.

Having the cable in every county will make it easier to expand broadband, said Thad Nation, executive director of Wired Wisconsin, a non-profit group focused on telecommunications issues.

Some rural schools and libraries could receive high-speed Internet access in 12 months as a result of the stimulus money. The work will be done by contractors hired by state government.

But don't expect broadband in all rural homes and businesses anytime soon.

The state's Internet service providers were shunned in the first round of stimulus grants aimed at bringing broadband to rural communities.

"If the goal is ubiquitous broadband in a short time, that clearly isn't going to happen," said Steve Schneider, president of Hilbert Communications of Green Bay.

Hilbert and other Internet providers applied for stimulus grants but instead received rejection letters with almost no explanation as to why they were turned down.

"My take on it was the government did very politically safe projects," Schneider said.

Hilbert is moving ahead with plans to bring broadband to rural areas, but the process will be slower without stimulus money.

It also would help if banks loosened their lending policies, Schneider said.

"Before, if a company raised $30 million in private equity, banks would be clamoring to get involved. But that isn't happening now," he said.

Internet providers say they can't afford to extend broadband coverage to rural areas where there are a limited number of customers. It could cost several billion dollars to make the service available statewide.

Experts say ideally there would be several hundred million dollars in federal stimulus money leveraged with money from private industry. Then most of the coverage gaps in Wisconsin could be filled in only a few years.

Second round planned

Applications are being accepted for a second round of stimulus grants, although some broadband providers say they haven't decided whether to pursue the funding again.

"It wasn't a real communicative process," Schneider said.

"We got a form letter saying we were rejected," said Brighid Riordan, spokeswoman for Cellcom, a Green Bay broadband provider that applied for $12 million in stimulus money to expand service in six rural Wisconsin counties and two Michigan counties.

About 80% of Wisconsin residents have access to some type of broadband through cable television providers or telephone companies, according to industry figures. But coverage gaps in rural areas are a problem as businesses and individuals increasingly turn to the Internet for everything from online sales to entertainment.

Nationwide there were 2,200 applications for broadband stimulus money, and about 1,300 of them were denied, said Tom Jackson, a staff member with state Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center).

Left behind

Improvements are coming at "glacial speed," Jackson said.

The lack of broadband access has put children in rural schools at a competitive disadvantage. Unable to quickly access podcasts, videos and Webinars, these children are a step behind in a technological society.

Rural businesses and residents also can be at a disadvantage if they don't have broadband.

"It would be a net plus, economically, if we were linked in effectively," said Jordon Maclay, a retired quantum physics professor near Richland Center who does research on rocket propulsion systems.

Maclay is frustrated over a lack of fast, reliable access to the Web for business and personal use.

"I don't get online trade journals because it would take half a day to download them," he said.


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