Broadband in Rural Wisconsin: Identifying Gaps, Highlighting Successes

While broadband is nearly universal in Wisconsin cities and villages, there are major disparities in the rural parts of the state, according to a new Forward Analytics report, Broadband in Rural Wisconsin: Identifying Gaps, Highlighting Successes.

“Without a doubt broadband access in all corners of our state is crucial for the success of Wisconsin. Over the past two decades, the growing importance of broadband for business, farming, school, and governments has been obvious,” said WCA Forward Analytics Director Dale Knapp. “The COVID-19 pandemic has put an even brighter spotlight on this issue and re-emphasized its critical nature as we face a new normal.”

The most recent data from the Federal Communications Commission show that 25% of rural residents lack access to 25 Mbps broadband, the speed which is now considered the standard. Wisconsin’s level of inaccessibility is worse than the national average and 35 other states.

In Wisconsin, rural access to 25 Mbps broadband varies widely by county. The highest levels of access generally are in the relatively small rural parts of urban counties, such as Kenosha, Racine, and Waukesha counties. However, in nine more sparsely-populated counties—Ashland, Clark, Douglas, Iron, Marinette, Price, Richland, Rusk, and Taylor—less than half of the rural population had broadband at that speed available in 2019.

According to Knapp, Wisconsin’s broadband infrastructure does have key successes, though. Access levels at speeds of 10 Mbps or higher are better than the U.S. average—93.6% of rural Wisconsin residents had access to those speeds vs. 91.3% nationally. In areas with high levels of 10 Mbps access, the strategy for achieving universal 25 Mbps access will focus more on upgrading current service rather than bringing new broadband to areas where it does not exist.

The Forward Analytics report illustrates that the state has also shown how a variety of technologies and strategies can be employed to provide broadband to rural populations. In Vernon, Ozaukee, Kewaunee, and Pierce counties, at least 92% of the rural population has access to 25 Mbps broadband. In Vernon County, fiber is by far the primary technology for accessing it. In Ozaukee, nearly 90% gain access through cable or DSL lines. Wired options are less available in Kewaunee County. Instead, eighty percent rural residents there receive broadband via fixed wireless towers. Pierce County has no dominant technology; a combination of these technologies are employed for a high level of broadband access.

“Local governments can play a leadership role in solving the problem of adequate universal broadband,” said Knapp. “They are uniquely positioned to identify underserved areas, which is a critical first step in addressing the access issue. Additionally, local governments can help connect local private providers to various state or federal grant programs, as successful broadband projects often require the collaboration of multiple stakeholders to identify and address the problem.”

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