The stories are piling up: A small business hampered by slow internet speeds, a family unable to stream Netflix, slow service for students learning virtually, business owners whose internet gets so overloaded they can't send an email; families choosing between running the computer or their three phones. Provided by residents in the towns of Solon Springs and Gordon, these stories could help secure a grant to expand internet access in the area.
Solon Springs town board chairperson Angela Botner has partnered with local provider Astrea to apply for an up to $650,000 broadband expansion grant from the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.
To make their case, they’re seeking testimonials and letters of support from businesses and individuals on how underserved, poorly served or unserved people are. If current access inhibits what residents can do now or if improved infrastructure could enable things that are currently not possible, they want to add it to the narrative.
"These testimonials play a very large role in the success of the grant being approved because they are the best way to represent the strong need the community has for high-speed internet," said Katelyn Quinn, brand and community manager for Astrea.
The Wisconsin Public Service Commission has provided millions of dollars in broadband expansion grants since 2014. In 2020, Douglas County received its first two grants — $443,000 for a town of Cloverland fiber project to connect six businesses and 55 residences through Norvado and $140,000 for AirFiber to build a wireless tower west of Amnicon Falls. The state has $24 million available in the next round of grants, and Botner aims to get Solon Springs and Gordon on that list.
Astrea, headquartered in Iron Mountain, Michigan, serves more than 60 communities throughout Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. It was founded in 2007 as Packerland Broadband, but was rebranded Astrea in 2019. The company's current footprint in Solon Springs lies mainly in the village, with service ending at the intersection of county roads A and P.
“So just around the corner from me,” Botner said. “I’m one of the lucky ones. I get 10 MB through CenturyLink.”
While speeds in the village can reach 25MB, she said, people on the other side of Upper St. Croix Lake are lucky to get 10. A second line at her own house, she was told, would have a top speed of four.
“Most people are stuck with one and a half, three, five,” Botner said. “It’s ridiculous. People can’t function at those speeds.”
A Solon Springs School Board member, Botner has seen how recent grants for a solar array and Montessori charter school have led to great growth for the school district. And she knew there was a problem.
“I’ve just been hearing for so long from a lot of people how terrible (access) is,” Botner said.
The pandemic reinforced that, as the Solon Springs School District has had to deploy hot spots and expand the school’s WiFi signal to reach the parking lot to provide internet access for virtual students who didn’t have access at home.
Astrea has applied for a few grants in the past, and some have been successful. Quinn said community support and impactful stories can increase the chance for a community to secure a grant. There is no cost to the community for the grant, but Quinn said if a local organization offered to chip in a few hundred dollars to show its support for the project, it can increase the odds.
Even if people aren’t in the proposed expansion area, their stories are needed. If the towns and Astrea secure this grant, they plan to seek additional funding in future rounds.
"This could potentially pave the way for future expansions in other areas of Douglas County," Quinn said.
The letters don’t have to be long, and they’re due by Nov. 14.
"Any and all support is valuable, whether it be a sentence or two or a few paragraphs or pages,"' Quinn said. "The more support we can include, the better."