Tom Still

Ruedebusch is a veteran businessman who understands how high-speed Internet
connections can make or break economic opportunity – depending on where you
live in Wisconsin.

owns a Madison development company that has built millions of square feet of
commercial space over time, including parts of the Fitchburg Technology Campus
and the TEC Center near Madison College on the city’s East Side.

also owns a small business incubator in the northern Wisconsin community of
Manitowish Waters, which he leased for a song to the Vilas County Economic
Development Corp. in 2013 to spur growth of companies and jobs near his
“second” home.

Madison, Ruedebusch sees young people flocking to jobs that somehow owe their
existence to the Internet. In Vilas County, he worries that creative, young
people will flee if they can’t pursue “knowledge economy” careers in the

why the latest Vilas County incubator, which is remodeled retail space on
Highway 51 in Manitowish Waters, provides its tenants with wireless access to
high-speed Internet and state-of-the-art video conferencing capabilities.

that kind of bandwidth is the exception for much of rural Wisconsin. Lack of
high-speed broadband is the rule.

is generally described as enough bandwidth, or high-speed Internet
connectivity, to carry multiple voice, video or data channels simultaneously.
That can be accomplished through fiber optic lines or through wireless

many businesses today are based on the Internet that if you’re a young person
looking for a job in a place with poor broadband, you’ve probably got to leave
town,” said Ruedebusch, who is helping to lead an effort to expand broadband
coverage in Vilas County.

addition to being a “brain drain” worry for rural Wisconsin, Ruedebusch sees
high-speed broadband as essential for the state’s tourism industry and as good
public policy in general, just as the interstate highway system and rural
electrification were in past decades.

Wisconsin ranks
below average among the 50 states when it comes to high-speed Internet access,
according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. A
major reason for the state’s mediocre ranking is access in rural Wisconsin,
where many telecom providers are trying to swap their historic commitment to
land-line service to investments in broadband.

Much like other
communities across the United States, rural Wisconsin would benefit from
enhanced broadband connections. Here are some reasons why:

  • Broadband allows small
    businesses to expand their markets and customer bases to regional,
    national and even international levels through greater use of online sales
  • It fosters opportunities for
    creation of businesses related to information technology, one of the
    fastest-growing segments of the U.S. economy.
  • It enables hospitals and
    clinics to make better use of telemedicine. Examples include rapidly
    locating digital medical records and medical images that can be more
    easily transmitted to doctors or clinics in remote locations. This can
    save lives and improve health.
  • It provides rural Wisconsin
    residents with greater access to higher education or continued education
    through “distance learning” systems. These systems themselves can become
    an export industry for Wisconsin, which has a strong “K-through-gray”
    education structure and companies engaged in educational software.
  • It will enhance tourism.
    Wisconsin is a prime tourism destination, but some in the industry find
    themselves losing opportunities to book sales if their broadband service
    is slow or erratic. Tourists used to send postcards; today, they Tweet,
    post on Facebook or send an Instagram – and they want to stay connected,
    even if they’re on vacation.
  • It will enhance public safety
    by allowing more rapid response to emergencies, whether those are medical
    emergencies, police calls or events related to natural disasters.

telecom companies are working toward faster broadband coverage, but it’s often
a matter of economics in counties where there are fewer people and a lot more
territory to cover.

The state Public
Service Commission and the affiliated LinkWISCONSIN initiative are engaged in
mapping broadband coverage and speed, working with local and regional leaders,
consumers and providers. It’s also a priority in the Legislature, where the
Assembly Committee on Energy and Utilities, chaired by state Rep. Mike Kuglitsch,
R-New Berlin, has taken an interest in rural broadband needs.

Advocates such
as Ruedebusch realize Wisconsin can’t have ubiquitous broadband service
overnight – or even next year. “It’s probably a 10-year process,” he concedes.
But that process begins with setting realistic goals and forming partnerships
that can help places such as Vilas County attract and keep business and talent.