Two projects aimed at improving broadband access in Douglas County have secured more than half a million in state grant dollars.

Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission will award a total of $24 million in Broadband Expansion Grant funding for 2020, including funds for projects in the towns of Amnicon and Cloverland.

Air Fiber will receive a $140,000 grant to build a wireless tower west of Amnicon Falls and Highway 53 that will reach 45 businesses and 2,456 residential locations within the footprint of the antennas. A $443,000 grant was approved in the town of Cloverland. Norvado will build a fiber-to-the-premises service past six businesses and 55 residences between the Brule River and the western boundary of the town.

Grant applications for the two projects were approved March 19. They are the first Douglas County projects to receive Broadband Expansion grants.

Broadband access is not equal in Douglas County. A color-block map provided by the Wisconsin Broadband Office pinpoints areas where information flows quickly and where it slows down to a crawl. The information highway digital users access in Superior becomes a one-lane gravel road in some of the county’s rural areas. Other spots have no access at all.

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At a meeting with the state broadband director last spring, Summit town board chairman Dan Corbin said some of his neighbors were forced to drive to Superior to access Wi-Fi so their children could do homework. While he got 10 megabytes of internet service pretty consistently, Corbin said the further down the line it went, the slower it got. One family who lived on the end of the line was getting 0.1 megabytes, even though they were paying for 10.

Travus Elm, co-owner of DiscoverPC.net, likened it to having a water pipe outside, but being connected to it with a straw.

The current Safer at Home order is adding strain to the system, as well. More people than ever are trying to drive down the digital road at the same time. Children throughout the county are connecting to the internet for distance learning and many adults are working from home. Others are searching for jobs or filing unemployment claims as the current public health emergency temporarily closed some businesses.

“I think it’s highlighted the differential between folks that have access to broadband and high speed internet,” said Kristine Porter, bureau director for DWD’s Division of Unemployment and Training. “Really the spotlight is on that now because it’s so transparent and so noticeable.”

Local educators said they are utilizing multiple platforms, from paper packets and smartphone apps to email, recorded lessons and virtual meetings to meet student needs regardless of broadband access.

"Everybody’s in a different situation. Teachers are in different situations," said Northwestern high and middle school band director Michael Hintzman, who records band lessons for students to watch. "The battle over Wi-Fi is a real thing when it comes to video conferencing."

Since 2009, the state’s broadband office, an arm of the Public Service Commission, has focused on improving broadband access in rural and underserved areas of Wisconsin. The office approved roughly $20 million in grant money for 138 state broadband projects from 2014 to 2019.

The Federal Communications Commission found that about 8.7% of Wisconsin's population, roughly 504,000 people, lacked access to a broadband service with a speed of 25/3 megabits per second or better. In addition, 27.9% of Wisconsin residents living in rural areas, or roughly 468,000 people, lacked access to at least one broadband service.