Posted by: FBRuralDevelopment | 04/06/2011

The Broadband Pole

 I got a fascinating email last week in response to one of my postings about broadband.  Ricky Rolfsmeyer lives in Hollandale, Wisconsin, a village in Iowa County in the southwest corner of the state.  He wrote to tell me about the importance of fast internet service to his tiny town and his life, and the innovative solution he came up with to provide himself with faster service.

 What he said was this:

 I am a five-foot poll away from working in the city. It keeps kickin’ faithfully, even in double-digit-below-zero Wisconsin winters or gale-force spring storms. The hardy little wireless broadband dish up on my roof is my link to the work world – my economic lifeline. Without it, I’d be commuting.

 We live in the country, a few miles from a village of 283. I work at a desk in my attic, the result of being the parent who stayed home to raise the kids. We’re a familiar story in rural America: my wife had the best health insurance so I was the one to remain at home. And if I wanted to make money while I played Mr. Mom, computer work it was.

 A few years ago I used the Internet for transmitting text, so a dial-up connection was fine. Now teleconferencing and video classes require streaming and a much faster connection. School kids are starting to need this too. Many Advance Placement courses require Broadband and this summer our school district will offer summer school via computer. Rural schools have always offered close, personal contact with teachers but we don’t have the breadth of classes bigger schools do. Internet courses help offset that. 

Farmers Savings Bank, Hollandale branch, with their wireless broadband dish on top of their roof.

Getting Broadband in a lot of rural areas can be the luck of the draw. I’m on a ridge and can pick up a wireless signal from the water tower in town, but just barely. Good thing I have that pole. A neighbor had to climb a silo to mount his dish. Most folks aren’t as lucky as we are and simply can’t get affordable service.

 We used to think that better highways would bring good jobs, but around here the new road is just a faster way to get to the city. Broadband, on the other hand, seems to be keeping folks here. At $3.50-plus for a gallon of gas and a lot of time commuting, city wages are being offset by the expense of getting there. The time I used to spend driving is now allocated to family, volunteering and shopping right here at home where I want to be.

 I know of a number of situations where businesses in the countryside – an orchard and implement dealer for instance – would love to have Broadband to boost marketing and sales.

Most of the workers around here now commute to jobs elsewhere. You can probably guess what this means to our local grocery, but it gets scary when you realize that we are down to just a few volunteer firefighters during the day. We’re not just exporting workers; we’re exporting our rural community’s lifeline.

 Good Internet service is also important to young families who might consider moving here because they like our strong family/community networks, healthy and safe villages and close-knit schools, where indeed no kid is left behind. Broadband certainly offers a chance for a well-paying work for our kids, too.

 There are a number of government efforts to boost rural broadband deployment. Some larger private companies are promising to expand the Broadband service areas. In southwest Wisconsin, many in the countryside – like me – have service through small, local co-ops and telephone companies.

Ricky explains, “This is one of my favorite places to shop and get the most recent stories/updates (aka -gossip). Word can travel faster at Hollandale Grocery than on CNN. This store is family owned since 1958. All photos courtesy of Ricky Rolfsmeyer

I know a lot of people who have left for the city, but not all of them really wanted to.

After 30 years as a rural community developer, I am convinced that we need to double our efforts to assure that rural areas have an equal chance to create jobs here. And equal chance means equal communications infrastructure.

 I suppose it’s not out of line to compare Broadband service now to getting electricity to farms decades ago. I suspect that back then some folks had to put concerted effort into it if they wanted to make sure they got the service. That kind of effort might be just what we need in 2011.

 Ricky Rolfsmeyer is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Rural Partners and can be reached at  ricky@wirural.org.

 


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