Evers announces pilot broadband program in Eau Claire County

·5 min read

May 14—EAU CLAIRE — Gov. Tony Evers and Eau Claire County officials are looking to space to solve a down-to-earth problem — broadband access — for many rural residents.

The governor stopped in Eau Claire Thursday to announce the launch of a pilot program to test SpaceX's Starlink in a part of eastern Eau Claire County that lacks reliable high-speed internet service. The system is a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites that can provide high-speed internet in rural areas where broadband is limited or unavailable.

The pilot project, supported by a $27,500 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and funding from several regional organizations, will provide high-speed internet to 50 rural homes and businesses in an area near Augusta for a year.

"In 2021, having access to reliable, affordable internet is no longer a luxury; it's a necessity," Evers said in a news conference at Chippewa Valley Regional Airport. "Every Wisconsinite across our state should have access to reliable, high-speed internet, period."

WEDC Secretary Missy Hughes said the pandemic demonstrated how important reliable high-speed internet access is today for work, school and healthcare.

"We see a lack of broadband in rural Wisconsin and it's really creating a problem for economic development and for moving rural Wisconsin forward," Hughes said.

More than 430,000 people, accounting for 25% of the state's rural population, lack access to high-speed internet, Evers said, citing data from the Federal Communications Commission.

A key challenge, Eau Claire County Board Chairman Nick Smiar said, is that it can be cost-prohibitive for internet providers to install the fiber optic cable necessary to connect lightly populated rural areas.

The pilot will enable residents to test the performance of a technology with the potential to bypass that hurdle in a portion of Eau Claire County, which Smiar estimated is about 30% rural.

Ron Perry, one of the 50 clients who will test the technology, understands the pitfalls of operating a high-tech business without the benefit of that basic component of modern infrastructure.

As the owner of Otter Creek Seed, Sales & Service, Perry has tried multiple avenues in the past several years to obtain broadband at his business but found nothing to be reliable. Perry said he is excited to test the SpaceX system in hopes that it will provide a long-term solution.

"I see this as a possible answer for rural areas," said Perry, whose firm already uses smart scanners to track inventory and satellite imagery and drones to monitor fields but relies on costly cellular data.

Evers also mentioned pilot participant Luke Annandale, who hopes that taking part in the trial will allow him to study nursing remotely through Chippewa Valley Technical College this fall. Annandale, who lives between Augusta and Fairchild, works nights at a building materials supplier and has indicated it would be difficult to drive into Eau Claire to attend classes in person after working all night.

Annandale's home has a traditional satellite internet provider, but he has found the service cuts out at times — a problem that might make remote learning unworkable.

"Reliable high-speed internet is the key that opens the door to learning and working from home, to starting and continuing a business and learning new skills and attending job training and even staying healthy ... through telehealth services," Evers said. "It connects the dots."

Among the area entities helping to pay for the pilot are Marshfield Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Hospital Sisters Health System, CVTC, PESI Online Learning, Eau Claire Energy Cooperative, Eau Claire County Economic Development Corp. and Royal Credit Union.

The health care providers are particularly interested after the explosion of telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the popularity of virtual health care delivery, Chris Meyer, director of virtual care and telehealth for Marshfield Clinic Health System, said the providers all faced a common barrier: patient access to reliable broadband.

The more that can be done to expand the reach of broadband, the more providers can extend health care service into people's homes, said Meyer, a member of the Governor's Task Force on Broadband Access.

"The cat is out of the bag. People like this," Meyer said. "It's easier, it's faster and they don't have to take so much time off from work to drive to Eau Claire or Marshfield or some other location to receive their health care, and as a result they save money, and this does lower the cost of health care."

SpaceX's Starlink is now delivering initial beta service internationally and domestically, including in other parts of Eau Claire County, and plans to continue expansion to near global coverage in 2021. For the pilot, the county and the other partners are paying the $499 equipment fee and $99 monthly service fee for participating households for a year.

Starlink's use of satellites in low orbit has the potential to reduce the service's latency, or the delay between sending and receiving data or between talking and hearing someone respond.

Bloomer Republican state Rep. Rob Summerfield, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Science, Technology and Broadband, said he supports the pilot as a way to see if the technology could be worth expanding to more areas of the state.

"It potentially could be an avenue to bridge the gap for areas that are hard to reach with fiber," Summerfield said. "We'll see how this comes out."

Evers' 2021-23 budget proposal includes nearly $200 million for broadband expansion, a priority that has been widely supported by Democrats and Republicans.