UW-Extension Aims to Improve Digital Connectivity in Rural Marathon County

Written by Kaitlyn Bernarde

In Marathon County, 17.8% of households don’t have internet access. Additionally, 6.9% of people don’t have access to high-speed broadband (FCC Form 477).


Marathon County Government leadership recognized this broadband gap in the 2018–2022 Strategic Plan, identifying it as Objective 8.7:

“Strive to provide affordable, reliable, high-speed internet access throughout the county.”

Extension Marathon County is implementing two new initiatives to help close the digital connectivity gap:

  • Hiring a Community Development Educator
  • Starting a local 4-H Digital Ambassador program

Together, these resources will work to provide affordable internet access, as well as community adoption and use to create digital inclusion across Marathon County.

Community Development Educator :: Melinda Osterberg

Melinda Osterberg, UW-Extension Community Development Educator. (Photo courtesy Extension Marathon County.)

In February 2019, Melinda Osterberg joined Extension Marathon County as a Community Development Educator. Melinda has a city planning background, having previously worked for the East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, Shawano and Waupaca County, before starting her own land-use consulting business in 2013.

The position is split 50% with Extension Lincoln County, with the primary purpose in Marathon County to facilitate conversation and planning related to broadband expansion.


Extension’s niche for this project is to help Marathon County get the broadband expansion process started and then work with a consultant to implement the plan.

The goal for both Melinda and for the Extension, Education, and Economic Development Committee of the Marathon County Board of Supervisors is to create internet access through individual communities. This includes forming a plan for having high-speed internet in each jurisdiction by examining what infrastructure is there and what high-speed access looks like in a given community.

Marathon County had a broadband access plan at one time, but this new effort differs in its approach and understanding . . .

The 2009 plan relied on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to obtain infrastructure and finances, making government involvement unnecessary. The current plan has a better knowledge and understanding of ISPs and their capabilities, has a partnership role for government, and is more specific — down to the municipal level.

Osterberg relayed:

“I’m excited to see what change we can make and how many more homes have [internet] access by 2022.”

Currently, she’s finalizing a request for proposal (RFP) to secure the consultant that will execute a feasibility study. This RFP is set to be published in the Spring of 2019.

4-H Digital Ambassador Program :: Tech Changemakers

4-H TechChangemakers with logos

Another new Extension Marathon County program to help address the digital divide is the 4-H Tech Changemakers program. This program utilizes “teens as teachers” who lead digital literacy classes in Marathon County through July 2020.

It’s a partnership between the National 4-H Council and Microsoft to close the connectivity gap in rural areas by empowering teens to be Digital Ambassadors.

Vince Liberatore of Microsoft Philanthropies explaining the digital divide gap and Microsoft’s Airband initiative at the Regional Digital Ambassador Training in Chicago, IL, on March 15, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Bernarde.)

The teen leaders will engage with a broad range of community members and organizations to make sure programming aligns with community needs, fosters positive relationships, and meets each group’s goals. Marathon County youth will develop a community action plan, implement their technology trainings, and evaluate the individual and community impact.

Group Exercise_Digital Ambassadors
Digital Ambassadors from 32 counties in 7 states participating in a group exercise at the Regional Training in Chicago, IL. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Bernarde.)

You can stay connected with the 4-H Tech Changemakers Digital Ambassadors via their Facebook page @4HDigitalAmbassadorsMC.

The current Tech Changemaker team is being finalized, so if you or someone you know is interested in becoming a Digital Ambassador, please visit marathon.extension.wisc.edu.

Marathon Co Team
Marathon County Digital Ambassadors Carver Higgins and Kaitlyn Bernarde working on community visioning for the local program at the Regional Training in Chicago, IL. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Bernarde.)

If you’d like to have the Digital Ambassadors teach your group or organization, please contact the Extension office at 715-261-1230.

Tech Changemakers

Marathon County 4-H is a service of the University of Wisconsin Extension–Cooperative Extension — a partnership between Marathon County and UW–Madison.


For more information about Marathon County 4-H, or to join, visit www.marathon.uwex.edu/4h or call 715-261-1230.

Kaitlyn_BernardeKaitlyn Bernarde

4-H Program Coordinator  |  University of Wisconsin Extension–Cooperative Extension

Kaitlyn Bernarde is the Marathon County 4-H Program Coordinator for UW-Extension, where she has worked since April 2018. She is a graduate of Marathon High School, has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, divides her time between volunteer management and expanding access to 4-H programs. Her passion is strengthening Marathon County youth and adults via education, opportunities, and experiences. In her free time, you can find her exploring Wisconsin with her husband, consuming the news of the day, and trying a new cup of coffee with her family.  Email Kaitlyn Bernarde.

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Image credits:
4-H Tech Changemakers images courtesy of the National 4-H Council.