By Tom Still

MADISON – There are no shortage of isolated spots in Wisconsin, and Washington Island is high on the seclusion list. Located about seven miles off the tip of Door County, where the waters of Green Bay meet those of Lake Michigan, the 30-square-mile island is accessible by boat, car ferry and two grassy landing strips. 

But if you need broadband Internet service once you wind your way to Washington Island, you can likely find it there.

Washington Island is home to one of Wisconsin’s first examples of “broadband over power line” communications, which is technology that can transmit high-speed Internet service over electrical power lines to a full range of customers. It was installed by the tiny Washington Island Electric Co-op, working with International Broadband Electric Communications. The project is an example of how high-speed Internet can reach even the hardest-to-reach places, economically and reliably, and link those places to the global economy.

A recent presentation by Raymond Blair, IBM’s director of advanced networks, to the Wisconsin Technology Council board of directors underscored how changing technology – and help from the federal stimulus bill – can bring broadband to parts of rural Wisconsin where costs are otherwise too high.

“Broadband over power line technology can get people off dial-up Internet access at a cost-effective rate,” said Blair, who discussed how IBM is working with IBEC to deploy the technology in states such as Alabama, Indiana, Michigan and Virginia, as well as nations in Latin America, eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.

The technology has been around for a few years, but it typically hasn’t been able to offer enough capacity at a low enough price to beat traditional cable or phone service. The federal stimulus bill, which includes $7.2 billion to bring broadband to rural America and other hard-to-access places, may have changed that.

“It’s not enough to bring Internet service to everyone,” Blair said of the federal stimulus dollars, “but it can make a dent. Yes, this (stimulus bill) has accelerated the deployment of broadband.”

Blair said broadband-over-power-line technology makes the most economic sense in the least populated places, where there might be a dozen or so customers per mile of line. The service is slower than what’s available through cable and phone, but it’s 10 times faster than dial-up service.

A video produced by IBM noted that Washington Island Electric Co-op has 238 broadband subscribers plus the island’s public buildings. It quoted one island resident, a business consultant, who said his new broadband connection “allows me to live and work in the same place.”

Blair noted that small electric cooperatives such as the Washington Island co-op serve 12 percent of the nation’s population but hold 45 percent of its power lines, making them natural partners for a broadband service. It’s a way to provide what used to be “nice to have” Internet service to parts of rural Wisconsin where such connections might now be in the “got to have” category for economic development.

Meanwhile, other companies continue to provide new wireless solutions, as well. AT&T announced last week it will add 50 cell sites in Wisconsin this year and expand its 3G wireless broadband network. A company spokesman said total capital investment by AT&T in Wisconsin exceeded $1 billion in the past three years, and the latest plans are designed to “build the broadband networks that will create jobs and fuel economic growth” while helping AT&T’s customers.

Cost-effective broadband access is vital to the economic future of rural Wisconsin, whether it’s on Washington Island or in small North Woods communities. In today’s global economy, few places can afford to be a communications island.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.