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Oconto County gets boost in its connectivity options

Continued push to connect rural Wisconsin to high-speed internet makes stop in areas of the rural county

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December 16, 2022

OCONTO COUNTY – Stories of high-speed internet coming to rural areas of Wisconsin have graced headlines many times over the last few years as companies invest in rural broadband expansion projects aimed at filling in coverage gaps in unserved and underserved communities.

The most recent area of focus – Oconto County, which includes a population of around 39,356 people spanning across three cities, three villages, 23 towns and 25 unincorporated communities in a 1,149-square-mile radius.

Kim Haas, senior director of regional communications for Charter Communications, Inc., said the Oconto County expansion project – which is being completed through the company’s Spectrum brand –  includes Oconto, Oconto Falls, Stiles, Lena, Coleman and Pound.

“Our work in Oconto County will continue for years to come,” she said. “Initial construction efforts focused on areas between Oconto and Oconto Falls – and teams will branch out from there, going more north, west and east with future construction efforts.”

Jayme Sellen, the executive director of the Oconto County Economic Development Corporation, said the impact will be felt county-wide.

“They are putting broadband services into places in the rural of the rural – agricultural lands, forest land, the places that are not highly populated,” she said.

Sellen said the broadband capabilities will allow residents and visitors to work remotely, work on educational credentials and utilize telemedicine.

“This is a big deal for the county,” she said. “It’s going to increase the value of homes and other properties. And it’s going to allow families to grow and businesses to grow and prosper here.”

The project
Haas said Spectrum began construction in Oconto County late last year.

“We have been making good progress,” she said.

The effort’s most recent milestone in the construction process, Haas said, included more than 1,500 homes and businesses across the county now having access to Spectrum services – including gigabit internet speeds.

“This is about 175 miles of new construction completed in the area – which is significant,” she said. “It’s new fiber, the latest technology, placed in areas where it didn’t exist.”

Working in rural areas, Haas said, can be challenging.

“This work in rural areas is challenging when you compare it to a new subdivision going within village or city limits,” she said. “It’s more sparse. Teams are working across rocky terrain and even river crossings to bring connections to homes and businesses that were not served.”

Haas said the process to complete these rural projects involves collaboration.

“Working in cooperation with the county and local municipalities on permitting and determining where the network can be placed,” she said. “Before construction starts, our teams do a walk out of the area, physically, to understand the terrain. From there, engineers design the build, and then construction follows.”

The financials
Haas said the Oconto County buildout is part of the company’s approximately $5 billion investment in unserved rural communities – which includes more than $1 billion won in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction.

“Our work in Oconto County is part of this larger, statewide RDOF effort,” she said.

The RDOF is an FCC initiative designed to inject billions of dollars into the construction and operation of rural broadband networks.

Kim Haas said the Oconto County expansion project will continue for years to come. Submitted Photo

RDOF funds are awarded by the FCC through a descending clock, reverse auction process – where service providers can participate in the auction and bid for a percentage of RDOF funds to serve one or more eligible areas.

“Through RDOF, Spectrum is making it possible to extend gigabit broadband networks to unserved communities across Wisconsin,” Matt Brown, Spectrum’s vice president of construction, said. “We are providing superior connectivity to local residents and small businesses at highly competitive prices, backed by an organization committed to craftsmanship and service.”

Why now?
Haas said the importance of fast, reliable internet has become central to nearly everything society does.

“The COVID-19 pandemic certainly shined a light on the importance of having access, but our efforts to extend the network to reach more rural homes and businesses were underway before COVID,” she said. “RDOF has accelerated efforts.”

In terms of the impact access to the fiber optic network will have on the area, Haas said, “it’s going to open new doors.”

“Many businesses and residential consumers have focused on ‘getting by’ for years with slow speeds and dial up connections,” she said. “To experience the faster speeds and reliability of a wired connection is a game-changer.”

The faster and consistent connectivity, Haas said, brings more opportunities.

“More people can work from home, expand their business operations in new ways – access telehealth services and learn remotely,” she said. “It means homes or businesses passed by Charter’s new network construction have access to the same network and offerings (including gigabit speeds) as Charter customers in larger cities. It’s a game-changer.”

Sellen said the broadband buildout will have major impacts on the entire county.

“It is going to make things that were difficult to do, easy,” she said. “We have businesses, like manufacturing businesses, that implement new equipment that typically needs to be on some kind of internet in order to report back to a central computer or to run efficiently. We have businesses that put these lines in and don’t have enough bandwidth, not enough speed, to operate effectively.”

Sellen said the option of high-speed broadband changes that.

“It is going to allow these businesses to produce more, to produce it for less money and be able to grow,” she said.

From a talent perspective, Sellen said the addition of rural broadband will also help put Oconto County on the map as far as work-from-home possibilities.

“The pandemic has changed the way we think about work, and you’re having a lot of hybrid work situations,” she said. “If somebody can work from their second home or their cottage, and live up here part time, or more than they would have more than now – all of our local hospitality businesses or grocery stores or gas stations are going to see increased business. It is going to impact every business in Oconto County.”

Small business owner Jolene Barkhaus said JoJo’s Diner in Lena has always offered Wi-Fi to its customers, but often ran into complications.

“When we got really busy, like Sunday after church or big lunch rush or breakfast rush, we noticed our whole system operations bogged down with everybody walking in and immediately their cell phones connecting to our Wi Fi,” she said. “It would interfere with our systems. We’d have to reboot our kitchen printers or our point-of-sale system on the regular.”

Barkhaus said that isn’t an issue anymore because Spectrum’s fiber option allows JoJo’s to have two high-speed lines – one dedicated to the business operations and a second for customer Wi-Fi connections – at the same cost she was previously paying.

She said the diner’s connectivity now makes it a viable option for remote work, business meetings and online learning.

“We do have a lot of people Monday through Friday that come in to have a business meeting or a business lunch conference and they know that they can easily use our Wi-Fi for free and conduct business that way without any issues,” she said. “I think that’s really important, and I think it’s really important to rural areas, especially, to have options like this.”

Barkhaus said the diner doesn’t currently offer online to-go orders or delivery, but with the more consistent connectivity fiber offers, it could be a possibility in the future.

“Now that we have more reliable internet through Spectrum, it might be something we looked into down the road,” she said.

Fond du Lac, Oshkosh county project
The Oconto County project completion comes on the heels of a similar completion in Winnebago and Fond du Lac counties. 

Haas said the Winnebago County expansion includes parts of the Towns of Nepeuskun, Omro and Rushford.

In Fond du Lac County, the new service areas include portions of the Town of Fond du Lac, Ashford, Auburn, Byron, Eden and Osceola.

Haas said local residents and business owners can find out more about the project and if they are able to connect at:

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