While the internet has become key for full participation in today’s society, there is still a gap between those who have access and those who don’t.
The gap is known as the Digital Divide, according to the University of Wisconsin-Extension Broadband & E-Commerce Education Center.
The center released data in 2015 showing that an estimated 96 percent of urban residents live in areas where broadband speeds are available. By comparison, 61 percent of rural households have the same availability, though access isn’t always guaranteed.
The UW-Extension data states lack of access is due to people not adopting broadband technologies, either because it costs too much money or they have security concerns.
Residents, officials offer insights
“While (the divide) isn’t wider than it used to be, it’s definitely steeper,” said Lodi Public Library Co-Director Trish Frankland. “If you don’t have access, it’s never been worse.”
Frankland said the Lodi Woman’s Club Public Library computers are as busy as they have always been. There are times when the library even has to make a waitlist for computers, though some people bring their own devices and use the library’s Wi-Fi connection.
“You can’t really apply for a job these days without going online,” she said.
Lindsay Ganz, director of the Poynette Public Library, said people also frequent the Poynette Public Library because they have spotty or no internet access.
Ganz said people logged into the library’s computers 5,190 times in 2017. She also said people connected to the library’s Wi-Fi 16,412 times in 2017, though there are only 2,498 Poynette residents. Frankland said she didn’t yet have the same numbers compiled for the Lodi Library.
West Point Town Board Chairman Ashley Nedeau-Owen compiled transcripts of complaints he said he received from West Point residents about broadband issues.
Two residents on Reynolds Road reported they have no broadband options at their address. They do, however, utilize satellite internet service provider HughesNet, but they said their connection is very slow. Another resident from Fjord Circle said they don’t have broadband at all.
“Please get us a reliable internet provider,” the Fjord Circle resident said, according to Nedeau-Owen’s transcripts.
Another resident from Northern Cross Arm Road reported they get their internet from U.S. Cellular, which costs them $40 for 10 gigabytes per month. They said they usually run out of data 10 days early, which means 10 days of no internet.
A Poynette resident and business owner, Jenny Walz, said her family has to use cell phones as Wi-Fi hotspots. She and her husband Luke Walz, Poynette Chamber of Commerce president, are co-owners of Poynette Auto Body, LLC. She said their business is a resource for Wi-Fi when the family runs out of cellular data, since they don’t get much of a connection at their home four miles outside of Poynette.
“I’m just shocked,” Jenny Walz said. “We can use cell towers and the signal is great, but it gets expensive.”
Walz said she has children who attend school in Poynette and they are frequently sent home with schoolwork that requires access to the internet. That means late nights at Poynette Auto Body or the library for a steady Wi-Fi connection.
The Digital Divide Index
The Purdue Center for Regional Development created a Digital Divide Index, which is comprised of an infrastructure and socioeconomic score. The DDI profile for Columbia County shows weaknesses in the area’s broadband infrastructure.
The infrastructure score reflects the average download and upload speeds an internet service provider advertises, in comparison to actual speeds a consumer might report. It also reflects the percentage of people in any given population (based on the 2010 census) that have what’s considered suitable download and upload speeds. (25 megabits for downloads and three megabits for uploads). Measuring upload and download speeds gives researchers an idea of either the presence or absence of broadband infrastructure in any given area, e.g. cables and fibers.
The socioeconomic score reflects factors that predict why a household may not utilize the technology necessary for an internet connection. These include the percentage of the population over 65, percentage of people over 25 with less than a high school education, the individual poverty rate and percentage of noninstitutionalized disabled persons.
The DDI scores ranges from 0-100 and the lower the number, the lower the divide. According to Columbia County’s DDI profile, its score is 35.9, with an infrastructure score of 62.7 and socioeconomic score of 22.4.
If either the infrastructure or socioeconomic score is significantly higher than the other, that indicates a need for either upgrades to broadband infrastructure or efforts to increase digital literacy.
In Columbia County’s case, according to the profile, the infrastructure score is significantly higher than the socioeconomic score, indicating a need for upgrades to broadband infrastructure. The profile also estimates $33.8 million in missed economic benefits over 15 years if 20 percent of households in Columbia County don’t acquire internet access.
Seeking a solution
Nedeau-Owen said one of the main problems with rural broadband is that consumers have limited options for internet service providers. Of four major companies that service the Lodi area (including West Point), two of them are satellite providers, HughesNet and Bug Tussel. The other companies are Charter Spectrum and Frontier.
The major companies that service Poynette are Charter Spectrum and CenturyLink, along with satellite providers Viasat, HughesNet and Exede, according to inmyarea.com, a website that compiles ISP information for communities.
The non-satellite companies offer cable, DSL and fiber services. Cable is data that travels along copper wires, DSL utilizes local phone lines and fiber uses flexible, hair-thin glass fibers. This is where Nedeau-Owen said lies another problem – the physical infrastructure of each type of connection in the area, or lack thereof.
And he said the town West Point officials aren’t even aware of the exact physical infrastructure, as the providers it consults with won’t provide them with a comprehensive map of where their services are strongest and weakest.
For this reason, Nedeau-Owen said the town has resorted to making a map of its own. It’s been a gradual process, he said, gathering the upload and download speeds of each resident and noting it on a map of West Point to gather further insights.
He said since certain companies aren’t being transparent, it becomes the responsibility of the municipality to help its citizens and residents. For instance, the town of West Point started organizing a rural broadband cooperative, a recommendation of its Broadband Committee, three years ago.
According to Nedeau-Owen, the committee hasn’t yet decided the cooperative’s purpose. He said it could be building up infrastructure in the town of West Point, or utilizing existing infrastructure and buying bandwidth in bulk for distribution at an affordable price.
Providing broadband to every resident of West Point is a goal, he said, especially if it’s done in a way that encourages competition between private providers and offers a member-owned cooperative to serve where private companies won’t.
“Broadband is a public utility,” he said. “It becomes increasingly incumbent upon us to give that to everyone… schools and governments have to make sure that connection is there.”