From the floor of the Grand Canyon to a 49-square-mile island near Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge, TDS Telecom’s 30-state service territory offers no shortage of places where high-speed Internet coverage is out of reach today. With the help of federal stimulus dollars, a better-connected tomorrow is within sight for even the most remote web users.

Amid reports that two-thirds of the $787 billion in total federal stimulus spending approved in February 2009 remains mired in red tape, it appears about $7.2 billion set aside to jumpstart extending “broadband” coverage to rural America is finding its way to hundreds of private-sector applicants such as Madison-based TDS.

It will still take time before many customers in Wisconsin and elsewhere can stop using dial-up Internet service and switch to high-speed broadband coverage, but the process of deciding which projects get federal help and which don’t will be completed by Oct. 1. In Wisconsin so far, that means $157 million in broadband grants for projects fully inside Wisconsin and another $254 million in grants for broadband projects at least partially within the state’s borders.

Some southern states will see larger per capita shares, in part because telecom companies there have done less on their own to extend broadband coverage, but Wisconsin’s slice of the broadband stimulus pie will be relatively high. Those broadband grants will leverage private investments by companies such as TDS, which has won 44 broadband grants so far – including 11 in Wisconsin that will serve about 8,500 dial-up customers.

Now comes the part that really matters: Building the physical infrastructure and getting people connected.

“We’ve been extremely tenacious about our involvement in this (broadband stimulus) program so far, and now we’re actively involved in the execution,” said Drew Petersen, director of external affairs and corporate communications for TDS Telecom.

Petersen said federal rules require two-thirds of the broadband improvements to be deployed within two years and all of the connections made to business, homes, schools and more within three years. But he expects many dial-up TDS customers to have access to high-speed Internet service within a year, providing state and federal permitting processes go as planned. About 94 percent of TDS customers have broadband access today; the broadband grants would make access all-but-universal within that company’s service areas.

Why is improved broadband access vital to rural America, including much of Wisconsin?

  • It allows small businesses, which account for two-thirds of new jobs in Wisconsin, to expand their markets and customer bases to the national and even international levels.
  • It creates more opportunities for creation of businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. Wisconsin is 21st among the states in IT employment, but poised for growth if the right “highways” are opened to all parts of the state.
  • It enables hospitals and clinics to better utilize telemedicine applications. An example might be rapidly locating digital medical records and medical images that can be easily transmitted to doctors or clinics in remote locations. Wisconsin is a hotbed of electronic medical record innovation, and it should capitalize on that.
  • It provides rural Wisconsin residents with greater access to higher education through distance learning systems. Those systems themselves could become an export industry for Wisconsin, which could better leverage its K-gray educational system.
  • It makes rural Wisconsin more likely to attract large data centers, which are part of many of today’s virtually integrated businesses and corporations.

Opponents of stimulus spending for any purpose might question if the broadband grants are worth the cost, or if the benefits will come in time to pull the nation out of its economic slump. Petersen believes the investment is worthwhile in part because it requires companies such as TDS to invest their own dollars, side-by-side, to help customers get connected.

“Broadband service is fundamentally changing people’s professional and personal lives,” Petersen said. “It will change economic development patterns in some areas. It will change how people telecommute. It will improve the flow of information about health and wellness. It will even change how parents in rural school districts get ‘real-time’ information about their kids. If we couldn’t be strong advocates for our customers through this program, we would have seen it as a missed opportunity.”

While parts of the federal stimulus package is bogged in bureaucracy or targeted in ways unlikely to produce private-sector jobs, the broadband dollars appear on track to connect even the most remote parts of America, including Wisconsin, to the global economy. That’s a connection worth making.

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