Polk County Broadband Leaders Forge Path Towards Equitable Access and Adoption

Thirty-five local stakeholders and internet service providers (ISPs) gathered for a luncheon in the Polk County Government Center to discuss broadband access, adoption, and affordability in Polk County on Thursday, May 4th. Tabletop displays of key information, brochures, and handouts from the special guest presenters and the West Central Wisconsin Broadband Alliance were the topics of numerous side-discussions as individuals grabbed their food, and it was clear that everyone present was energized to talk about the topic at hand. The West Central Wisconsin Broadband Alliance is a collaboration of business, educational, governmental, non-profit, and citizens partners who meet regularly to advocate for broadband expansion and adoption.

The meeting was organized by Polk County Administrator, Vince Netherland, and Cliff Albertson, a broadband consultant at Badger Communications; its aim was to address the unique challenges faced by the County in bridging the digital divide and fostering a more connected and inclusive community. The meeting brought together a diverse group of community leaders, policymakers, educators, and representatives from ISPs who recognize the critical importance of broadband access in today’s society. Presenters included Jaron McCallum, strategic initiatives coordinator for the PSC Wisconsin Broadband Office; Gail Huycke, UW-Extension community development broadband outreach specialist; Danielle Jones, director of rural initiatives, WEDC Office of Rural Prosperity; and Carah Koch, Federal Program Officer for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“I think the meeting was very informative,” said Netherland. “We called in local ISPs. We called in people from the state—we even had a federal agency representative here—and we brought in Polk County leaders from the top industries and sectors like education, healthcare, and agriculture, to come in and tell us why this is important to them and what are their obstacles to getting broadband into homes and getting adopted.”

“As a state employee of the WBO, I am always so pleased to take part and listen in on these local conversations,” said McCallum. “We do a lot at the state-wide level to promote broadband but these local conversations are key and are actually where the rubber meets the road.”

The meeting was seen by many as a testament to the strides made on broadband in Polk County. Four years ago, the Polk County Board of Supervisors made it a long-term priority to expand broadband access within the County. In 2018 and 2019, the Polk County Board of Supervisors passed Resolutions to facilitate the development and expansion of broadband internet services available to county residents and designated Polk County as a “Broadband Forward!” and “Telecommuter Forward!” community. These certifications identified Polk County as supportive of increased broadband access and committed to promoting telecommuting.

Netherland worked with industry expert, Albertson, to create an up-to-date set of data regarding broadband accessibility and availability in Polk County and engaged with the local service providers to identify opportunities for the continued growth and expansion of broadband in the area. Then, in February of last year, the Polk County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution allowing for a portion of ARPA funds to be used for matching grant funds for applications for broadband expansion submitted by local service providers to the State of Wisconsin.

“The emphasis at the time was to get the fiber in the ground and get it throughout the County border to border,” said Netherland. “Geographically, approximately 85% of the County has access to some type of high-speed internet. But what we’ve found is that doesn’t necessarily mean 85% of County residents have adopted it, or have a line to their house.”

Netherland also added, “this is not just a Polk County government effort. The real gratitude goes to our local ISPs; they are the ones risking their dollars and businesses to spread into these areas. It’s also all the support they are getting from citizens encouraging this.”

Polk County, like many other regions in rural Wisconsin, faces disparities in broadband access, which hinder opportunities for economic growth, education, healthcare, and civic engagement. While local ISPs and Polk County have made substantial progress in establishing the necessary infrastructure, obstacles such as long driveways, easements, and adoption barriers persist, hindering equitable broadband availability for all residents.

For many who live on a private road in Polk County, getting a local ISP to run fiber optic cable may be a challenge. During the meeting, ISPs discussed how they need to acquire easements from private property owners that are between a potential customer and a main fiber optic line in the ground. This process can be very time consuming, and if one landowner denies the ISP the right to access their property to run the cable, they can cut off other property owners from broadband access.

Participants at the meeting also engaged in discussions that emphasized the transformative impact of broadband on the present and future of Polk County. Affordable broadband internet access brings numerous benefits to a community, including economic growth through remote work, business opportunities and entrepreneurship, enhanced education with access to online resources and virtual learning, improved healthcare through telehealth services, and streamlined government services and civic engagement.

“I can see it being important to veterans since the VA is changing many of their processes to online submittal and offering things such as telehealth as virtual appointments,” said Andrew Butzler, County Veteran Service Officer. “I feel telehealth is beneficial to all age groups of veterans, regardless of them being a busy parent, or retired. Personally, I prefer my appointments by virtual because it saves me from taking a few hours off work just to drive to and from the appointment. Given our geographical location and climate, it can be difficult for veterans to travel an hour or greater for a medical appointment.”

Wojchik said, “For the agricultural community . . . there are some operations that are becoming very technologically advanced and are dependent on fast internet speed to operate equipment, manage cropping systems, and support their business decisions. I think overall the agriculture community is moving towards the need for fast reliable internet very quickly and access to this service would be a huge benefit.”

Moving forward, the group expressed its commitment to remaining advocates and champions for broadband in Polk County. Attendees pledged to continue working closely with local authorities, community organizations, and ISPs to drive forward initiatives that expand access, promote adoption, and improve affordability of broadband services.

“I think the conversations that happened at the event were fantastic,” Huycke said. “But now is not the time to take the foot off the accelerator. It will be important to build on those positive conversations and look for ways for all the stakeholders to work together. Now it the time to look for win-win solutions for all. Together public and private partners need to continue to explore partnerships to improve access, adoption and affordability on the quest to bring Internet for all.”

“Rivers, roads, and railroads led the way to prosperity and are still vitally important,” said Albertson. “The road to the future has a new addition: broadband.”