By Renee Torzala, Vice President, Marketing & Investor Relations, New North Inc.
Dan Nett, Superintendent of New Holstein School District felt confident that his community had adequate internet connectivity that could keep pace with the growing use of technology. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he was scrambling to meet the needs of families who were suddenly sharing their home internet bandwidth to attend work and school virtually.
“During the pandemic, it became clear that there are many gaps in broadband coverage, especially in the smaller townships,” says Nett. “At first, we had families who had to connect to WIFI in the parking lot of our schools or public library. We worked with multiple providers to help connect the teachers to our students, but we knew this was only a short-term solution and better broadband access is needed everywhere.”
The impact on businesses was also significant, according to Mary Kohrell, Community Economic Development Director for Calumet County. The county has one of the largest commuter populations in the state, so when those workers were asked to work from home, it became an additional drain on the bandwidth in certain areas.
“Internet speed is just as important as access,” says Kohrell. “The limited broadband strength can hold back businesses and municipal governments from taking advantage of new technologies,” she said. She explained that the problem is magnified by the overlap and redundancies in fiber where the location is not necessarily visible or known to the municipality or county.
That’s where the New North comes in. In May, New North Inc. received a $500,000 U.S. Economic Development Administration CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant to conduct a broadband gap analysis for the 18 counties of the New North region. The regional economic development corporation will lead the effort to map deficiencies and identify solutions that will help spur private business and job growth. CARES was the first of three major pieces of COVID-19 relief legislation in 2020-2021.
Dan and Mary were both part of a roundtable discussion with Senator Tammy Baldwin on July 8 to kick off the project. Participants shared how broadband has become a vital need for businesses, health care delivery systems, schools, organizations and municipalities, which increasingly rely on the internet. The study will conclude in December 2021, providing a regional broadband data analysis, mapping, and cost modelling for each county.
The project is being matched with $125,000 in local funds from New North, Outagamie County and a regional grant from the Basic Needs Giving Partnership, a collaboration between the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region, Greater Green Bay Community Foundation, Oshkosh Area Community Foundation, U.S. Venture, and the J.J. Keller Foundation.
For more information about the Broadband Access Study go to the Business Page on the New North website.