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Fond du Lac County looks to solve rural broadband 'crisis'

Posted at 5:33 AM, Oct 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-21 06:06:48-04

OAKFIELD, Wis. — A project in Fond du Lac County is paving the way for more reliable internet connectivity. The lack of access is so widespread that some call it a crisis.

In Wisconsin, roughly 40% of residents don't have reliable access to internet, according to the Public Service Commission.

That includes Nathan and Jackie Kollmann, who own a farm in the village of Oakfield.

"Everybody tells you to stream this or do that," said Nathan, "and, it just don't work like that. We don't have the ability with the internet service that we have."

From the outside, the farm thrives with livestock and fields of crops. But inside is Jackie's home office. She says she constantly runs into challenges earning the other half of the family's income. The couple has one wireless hotspot to share among themselves and their four kids.

"It takes time to restart and then I'm missing work, and it's just definitely a challenge," said Jackie.

Add four kids to the mix who often have online homework, or even sometimes have remote learning due to the pandemic, and things get even more hectic.

But the wireless hotspot is the Kollmann's only option.

"We did have satellite internet for a while, but if it rains you're not able to use it, if it snows you're not able to use it," said Nathan.

The Kollmann family isn't alone. A 2021 survey by Envision Greater Fond du Lac and the Fond du Lac County Broadband Task Force found that 66% of residents report having unreliable internet. 10% don't have internet at all.

County Executive Allen Buechel says the coronavirus pandemic showed how serious the problem is.

"What happened with COVID, where so many people wanted to work from home, when the children had to have access to broadband at higher speeds than they could get, it became a crisis," said Buechel.

It's why Fond du Lac and other Wisconsin counties will split $80 million in bonds for broadband upgrades.

With the money, Bug Tussel will come in and add 16 new broadband and cellular towers and 160 miles worth of fiber optic cable to the area.

It's an investment that the Fond du Lac County executive says is long overdue.

"My mother was born in 1905, so when electricity came to the farm, the big thing was not electric likes - but was to able to buy a radio so that they could hear what was going on in the rest of the world. That is no different than what we are talking about today," said Buecchel.

President and CEO of Bug Tussel Wireless, Steve Schneider, agrees that the expansion of access to the internet is critical in rural America.

"I think broadband is truly, to use the cliche, the great equalizer. Broadband means you can be anywhere, and you can be in any economic class and you can be successful if you have the education and the access, and that brings economic opportunity," Schneider said.

Schneider's company will work to ensure everyone has basic service in the next six to eighteen months. Then, they'll work to build a comprehensive plan for the future, which includes adding infrastructure to connect to under-served areas. That part will likely take years. Still, Schneider says this approach is aggressive and he hopes this type of planning doesn't stop in rural Wisconsin.

"This is a rural problem that urban communities also experience. And so it's important that government and society address this, because it's important to our quality of life, it's important to economic recovery and it's important to economic development as well," he said.

It's a collaborative effort to connect those who have been left behind in a world that is more connected than ever.

"It would be really nice to have access to the internet like the rest of the world," said Jackie.

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