TOWN OF POYGAN, Wis. — At a time when Americans can work and learn remotely from just about anywhere, internet access isn't a luxury it's a necessity. However, a large part of rural Wisconsin has been left behind.
"It's not a good day for the internet here." Cheryl Muskus of the town of Poygan fights an invisible battle from her dining room table.
"Last night, we could not get internet here at all. We could not hook up to the internet. I don't know why," Muskus says as she tries to connect her laptop to her Verizon wireless service provider to no avail.
"Over the years it's gotten worse and worse and worse," she says.
"It's getting to the point where I can't do my business out of the house."
Muskus, a small business consultant, has been forced to use public internet connections in nearby Oshkosh just to get a signal strong enough to work. And she's not alone.
According to a report from Forward Analytics, hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin do not have access to high-speed internet at all. The report shows 25% of Wisconsin's rural population lack access to high-speed internet. That's more than 430,000 people and many more struggle with the weak connection they do have.
Adequate internet is considered to be 25 MBPS or more. Anything less isn't sufficient for working or schooling from home. Cheryl Muskus says her speeds don't even come close.
"It's frustrating," she says.
Private Internet providers like TDS Telecom are spending millions of dollars on laying fiber-optic lines across thousands of miles across northeast Wisconsin.
"Broadband is the most legally addictive product a company can sell," says Drew Peterson, senior VP of corporate affairs for TDS.
"Everybody wants faster, more reliable speeds and that's what we are in the business of bringing," he adds.
TDS is bringing fiber-optic internet to over 70,000 addresses around the Fox Valley. Digging 1,000 feet of line per day with service starting in 2022.
"We are definitely focusing on the bigger areas where we can reach as many people as possible right away," says Adam Shavlik, Appleton construction manager for Tilson Construction.
"Because there is more demand for our services there are more customers. It creates real opportunities for us because there are significant communities for a company like TDS," adds Peterson.
Bringing high-speed internet to urban areas isn't the only problem. Rural Wisconsin and Native American Reservations are being left behind in these digital deserts.
"Everyone has a program to try to put this infrastructure in place but none of them, so far have been effective in bringing broadband to the rural areas or bringing broadband to the reservations in any significant matter because it takes time and a lot more money and infrastructure than folks seem to think," says Theron Rutyna, IT Director for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
According to reports, it costs up to $80,000 or more per mile to install broadband internet service. In rural areas, it doesn't reach enough customers to offset the cost.
"The economics are challenging. There are fewer people in those areas. It costs the same to build a fiber-optic route mile, whether you have 100,000 customers or 10 and so that's one of the challenges that I think local municipal areas that are smaller, face," Peterson says.
Private companies like TDS Telecom are working on finding solutions to rural internet deserts but it's going to be a long road.
Cheryl Muskus doesn't want to watch her internet connection get denied any longer. She's taking action by making calls to the Public Service Commission, to Congress, to whoever will listen, in an effort to bring functional internet speeds to her side of the state.
"We're like hanging on a thread. How about people home from schools, working out of their home, the schools, the homeschooling, I mean, it's not good. They can't do it," says Muskus.
After 4 years on her crusade for adequate speeds, internet service provider, USI received a grant to install fiber-optic internet to Cheryl Muskus' neighborhood and the surrounding area.
"They're planning on being here probably April or May and we will actually have fiber-optic here. Which is better than the best. It's better than cable!" she says emphatically. "I'm really thrilled that this is actually coming to be."
Broadband experts say digital inclusion is key to helping us thrive as a community and as an economy. Until broadband covers 100 percent of the country we will need crusaders like Muskus to make rural voices heard.
Last month, President Biden signed into law an infrastructure bill that will set aside $65 billion to provide affordable broadband internet across the country but that's still short of the $80 billion needed to cover 100% of American residents. And those who will still fall behind are those in these rural internet deserts.