Written by Brad Karger
“From an economic development perspective, broadband access is demonstrably as important as roads, highways and sewer and water….. Marathon County can be competitive only if it extends broadband capability to as many communities as quickly as feasible.”
— Greater Wausau Region Economic Development Strategic Plan (March 2019)
Broadband, high-speed internet:
Isn’t that a service private companies provide? Why does Marathon County Government need to get involved?
Yes, it’s true that private companies, like Charter Communications, offer internet services in Marathon County. In fact, I have Charter’s internet service at my home in Wausau. I don’t know if their service is high-performing* or not. (Their marketing material says it is.) It meets my household internet needs — that’s all I know.
But not all communities in Marathon County have access to reliable, affordable, high-speed internet, and that puts us at a distinct disadvantage in the competition to attract new businesses, expand existing businesses, and recruit talented individuals to live and work in our county. In a nutshell:
What we have now in terms of broadband access is bad for business in Marathon County.
On April 28, 2019, the Farmers Union invited several Marathon County Board members to their monthly meeting, as their main topic of discussion planned for the meeting was rural broadband. The farmers talked about how expensive it is to get poor internet service. Some of them are paying $200 a month for internet service that cuts out during storms, sun flares, and so on. It’s simply not dependable.
Several other farmers mentioned that, as a business, it’s very hard to operate without wireless internet. They use their cell phones as hotspots, but about halfway through the month, their data is basically used up, so they have to update their websites, publish their newsletters and social media, and conduct all manner of business only when they can connect to Wi-Fi.
One farmer even said that he sometimes goes to the parking lot of the Athens branch of the Marathon County Public Library (MCPL) to email, upload a newsletter, or connect with customers. The problem? MCPL turns off the public Wi-Fi when the library closes.
County Board Supervisor Katie Rosenberg was at that April Farmers Union meeting. As an MCPL Trustee, she proposed at the library’s May Board meeting that all Marathon County Public Library locations leave the public Wi-Fi turned on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (albeit access will be from the parking lot when the libraries are closed). The Board discussed the idea, and ultimately it was decided that it was in the best interest of Marathon County residents and businesses to assist with internet connectivity disparities at 8 MCPL branches, recognizing this was only one small way. According to Rosenberg:
“Our local farmers have so much to worry about right now outside of internet access. I’m glad this small step will help, but we for sure need to find a comprehensive solution so Marathon County can remain economically viable into the future.”
As part of that comprehensive solution, Marathon County plans to expand its high-speed, broadband network. This will have numerous positive outcomes for Marathon County:
- High-speed internet is necessary for more than just business and commerce — It’s a key part of much of our day-to-day lives. It impacts education, health, public safety, cultural enrichment, and government operations, and it aids in countless conveniences and efficiencies in our home lives.
- More and more employers are supporting telecommuters who work from home. It might be okay if you exclusively use the internet for social and recreational purposes and the service slows when the neighbor kids get home from school and start watching movies online. But for work needs, that service disruption will be more than a minor annoyance.
- The ability to access and benefit from online educational opportunities. I always think of the online colleges like the University of Phoenix, which now has an enrollment of 120,000 students — more than any of the brick-and-mortar universities. But more than that, K–12 education is also reliant upon the internet for student learning, and that really puts the kids who live in underserved areas at a disadvantage.
- With physician shortages occurring regularly in rural areas, telemedicine can provide remote patient care and monitoring, access to specialists, and help better manage costs. Telemedicine can also be particularly helpful for patients who don’t have access to reliable transportation to and from a doctor’s office.
- And finally, like it or not, the internet has become part of most people’s social and recreational life. If you don’t believe me, purchase a home in an area with no internet or cellular data service. (You can probably get a good buy on the property!) You may think it’s only your teenage children who struggle without being connected electronically, but I predict you’ll find that the whole family feels left behind on the side of the information highway!
Marathon County Government has no intention of becoming an internet provider. State law wouldn’t permit us to do so, even if we wanted to. Here’s what we do plan to do, though:
- Determine exactly what the broadband needs are for Marathon County.
- Engineer a plan in which residents get connected quickly to affordable internet services. That will likely involve a combination of fiber optics and wireless services.
- Create a financing plan and governance structure to support the network. The infrastructure construction will cost in the millions. It might be paid in part by grants, but some of the operational costs need to be paid by the beneficiaries of the service. A community organization may need to be formed to make decisions on behalf of the consumers.
Here’s where we are now in the process:
The Marathon County Board has made broadband expansion a top priority in their 2018–2022 Strategic Plan and 2016 Comprehensive Plan as a prerequisite to achieving the County’s business growth and prosperity goals.
In addition, County staff were tasked with hiring a firm that specializes in assisting communities with broadband expansion to help us create an action plan. As such, a small group of County Board and staff leaders distributed a request for proposals (RFP), and a special committee interviewed several firms with experience in the type of consulting we need for this broadband expansion project. We are now in the final stages of negotiating with the firm that the selection committee deemed as the best one to meet our needs. That contract will be in place soon, and I expect to be prepared to announce the committee’s selected broadband-expansion consulting firm — and a timeline of activities — in time for our July edition of Wisconsin Central Time NEWS. Their study will be completed by the end of this calendar year.
This is an exciting endeavor . . .
For years, County and business leaders have talked about the need to expand broadband in Marathon County. We’ve discussed and rehashed all the impediments to progress long enough. Now is the time for action!
This is really going to be exciting in 2020, when construction starts and residents can start to experience the benefits of expanding reliable, high-speed internet across Marathon County!
* Are you unsure of the internet speed that you have at home or at work? Well the National Association of Counties (NACo) has created an app called TestIT (available for download here) you can use to measure your download/upload speed — It’s fast and it’s free!
Additionally, the connectivity data gathered will help NACo in their effort to lobby Congress to provide more Federal funding for needed broadband infrastructure.
I just tested the download and upload speeds here in my office at the Marathon County Courthouse, and I learned that we have a download speed of 59.91 Mbps and an upload speed of 17.62 Mbps, which doesn’t mean a lot to me, but the statement that followed those results was: Your connection exceeds the FCC benchmark (25/3 Mbps down/up). That tells me we’re in good shape here at the Courthouse.
With your help, we can see how the rest of Marathon County fares!
Marathon County Administrator
In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $162 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday. Email Brad Karger.
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