By Tom Still
ASHLAND, Wis. – If you scan through the 20 or so customer reviews on the website for Superior Sauna & Steam, a company near the northern Wisconsin city of Ashland, you’ll notice something right away: Few of the people who thanked the firm for its products and service are from Wisconsin.
That’s because Superior Sauna & Steam, founded in 2004 as a business that once seemed destined to be confined to northwest Wisconsin, has found customers all over the United States and the world through its robust broadband connections to the internet.
“You can do business anywhere in the world if you have the right connections,” said Chuck Porter, owner and managing partner of the firm, which makes and ships sauna heaters, doors, do-it-yourself kits, tubs and more from its plant in the Bayfield County Business Park.
Located three miles west of Ashland, the park is basically rural and wouldn’t have strong broadband connections except for the fact developers recognized such service was a 21st century necessity. Norvado, a local provider that has installed about 2,300 miles of fiber optic cable in its territory over time, serves the park and allows companies such as Superior Sauna & Steam to sell everywhere.
Porter said about 95 percent of the company’s $2.5 million in annual sales are from outside the region, a percentage that wouldn’t be remotely possible unless people could find them on the internet.
His story was featured at a recent meeting of the Tech Council Innovation Network at Indianhead Technical College in Ashland, where more than 50 people gathered to talk about broadband service in northwest Wisconsin and to hear about attempts to improve it.
Those efforts include a mix of public and private strategies designed to help businesses, people and institutions in rural Wisconsin stay connected – and relevant – in the digital age.
Angie Dickison, the broadband director for the state Public Service Commission, said 55 state grants in 31 counties have spurred $14 million in internet build-out in rural Wisconsin over five years. Another $35.5 million is available in the 2017-19 state budget for competitive grants, some of which will be announced in April. Another round of state applications will be due by July.
Federal grants through the Connect America Fund 2 and other programs are projected to connect about 300,000 Wisconsin households over 10 years, according to PSC estimates.
Because fiber optics is expensive to install – about $30,000 per mile, depending on the terrain – other broadband options are being developed nationwide. They include use of television “white space,” the buffer zones between channels; fixed wireless; small-cell systems; satellite broadband through SpaceX and Google’s Project Loon, a network of balloons traveling the edge of the atmosphere.
Some will work and some may flop, but the mix of technology will be needed in hard-to-reach communities such as those in rural Wisconsin.
Strong broadband connections aren’t just a “must-have” for business. They are essential to agriculture, emergency services, education and health care. Jason Douglas, chief executive officer of Memorial Medical Center in Ashland, told the crowd that quality and timely care can depend on it.
“Telemedicine has made health care timelier, provided access to specialty doctors, and allowed (Memorial Medical Center) to maintain its independent critical-access hospital designation,” said Douglas, who mentioned tele-pathology, tele-pharmacy and tele-stroke diagnosis.
A show of hands at the meeting revealed that while people agreed broadband service is better than five years ago, most said it must improve. Dickison agreed.
“Approximately 99 percent of the population in (Wisconsin) urban communities has access to broadband at 25 megabits speed levels … in rural communities, it’s about 57 percent of the population. That really does highlight the challenge we’re talking about here,” Dickison said.
That’s a challenge that will require more public-private investment and cooperation for rural Wisconsin to keep abreast in the digital age.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.