In today’s world, it isn’t enough for towns to attract businesses to spur economic growth.
As the town board members in Lake Tomahawk learned at their meeting last week, even small towns need an on ramp to the information superhighway to attract companies and new residents.
Tim Brown, UW-Extension economic development specialist, gave the board members a shorter presentation of a three-hour version he gave to the Oneida County board last summer.
“Tonight I’m just going to scratch the surface, maybe get you thinking a little bit about broadband high speed Internet and where you as a town fit into the equation,” he said.
Brown started the discussion by explaining why technology matters. He asked the members of the audience and board to think back to what it was like before electricity came to rural Wisconsin.
“None of us remember that, but life was very different,” Brown said. “Water was pumped by hand, light came from burning kerosene or other things.”
For refrigeration, you had to store ice harvested in the winter in rooms where it would keep better.”
“Then electricity came and it changed the way the world looked forever – it brought a lot of convenience,” Brown said.
The old business model of customer ordering a product from a company through a storefront and waiting for it to be shipped is giving way to a faster, more streamlined version, thanks to the Internet.
“Now when you buy something on Amazon.com, the message goes all the way back through this (supply) chain instantly,” Brown said. “If you are buying a new computer, chances are it hasn’t even been put together yet, it’s still in a million little pieces. But as soon as you click that button, someone in China starts assembling your computer, and in less than a week it’s on your doorstep.”
He said the Internet has changed the way the world communicates. Software such as Skype allows people to video chat in real time over the Internet. Smartphones put a camera, television, Internet access, a calculator, texting and phone capabilities in everyone’s hands.
“The way these things are changing the world, giving us information on the go, is really remarkable,” he said. “The world is getting smaller. It’s not that great a distance to China when we can communicate instantly.”
Changing face of technology
He said the changing face of technology has transformed even high school in the 10 years since he was there. Children today are much more adept at using the modern “conveniences” than adults.
“Everyone has laptops or tablets. There are no more big textbooks, everything is on little tiny hard drives,” he said. “Homework is emailed, kids can communicate with their teachers 24 hours a day.”
Computers have changed the way work is performed in many fields. The Internet is considered such a valuable resource it is becoming a factor in where people and businesses locate.
“It is becoming a vital service,” Brown said. “Just like water and electricity. It affects where people live.”
He said that the ability for government at all levels to deliver services has even been changed by the advances in the information age. Social Security or veterans benefits will be more and more Web-based since it is more efficient for the government to do so.
“There is no going back. This is the way the world is moving and it will not stop,” Brown said.
He said there are several ways Internet providers get the service to the customers. It can range from dial-up through cable to satellite-based, with each needing its own infrastructure. He said it was this infrastructure that local governments brings the local government into the mix.
“It involves towers that need to be built, cables that need to go into the ground. It involves a lot of things that people like you [town boards] make decisions about,” Brown said.
Compounding the problems faced by small rural communities trying to entice Internet providers to invest in the needed infrastructure to bring high speed Internet to small towns is that private companies, not governments, own this infrastructure.
Service to small towns
Often bringing service to the smaller towns boils down to do these additional customers generating enough profit to make it profitable for the companies to expand their network. This is where local governments can have the most impact.
Brown said that studies have shown that the smaller the community and the farther away it is from a major metropolitan area, the less likely it is to have high speed Internet.
Even in Lake Tomahawk, Brown said that there are only a few carriers that provide service.
He said faced with this, small towns – and their governments – have to prove to the telecommunication companies that enough people would be willing to purchase the service if it was brought to the area.
“Towns like Three Lakes have been knocking on the provider’s door saying ‘we got enough citizens who we think would pay for this. That then persuades the providers to take another look,” Brown said.
He said a number of towns in Oneida County have conducted demand surveys that are sent out with tax bills asking residents to answer three or four questions about how likely they would be to purchase Internet service if it were available. The towns can take the data, such as how many people and at what addresses would be willing to purchase the service.
Another thing communities can do is hold broadband fairs and invite all Internet providers, not just those who reach the town, to attend. Citizens then come and learn about what is available and how customers can sign up for them.
“That gets providers’ attention because all of a sudden, they’ve got dozens of people coming up to them and asking why they don’t provide this on our road? And it works,” Brown said.
Towns can also help get Internet providers to come to a rural community if locations such as towers and high buildings could be used in lieu of towers.
“It’s not uncommon for a town to lease out space on a tower to Verizon or AT&T,” Brown said. “The towns will lease out this structure, the companies don’t have to pay to build a tower.”
Most of these enticements that towns can offer have very little – if done correctly – financial cost to the town.
Brown said that there are other things a town board can do to entice a telecommunications company to extend its service. He added that the UW-Extension can help plan and conduct public meetings, do survey work, etc.
It was pointed out that Lake Tomahawk is trying to entice a hotel chain into building in the Lake Tomahawk area. Brown said this would be a lot easier if the town is wired for broadband.
“Some of the resorts have high speed wireless and some don’t. And the ones that do are doing better than those who don’t,” Brown said. “Some people want to unplug, but some want the option to plug back in, even when they are on vacation.”
He also said that Lake Tomahawk can take a page from neighboring towns that have gotten broadband service.
“Towns are happy to share this information with each other, generally,” he said.
He said UW-Extension ran a statewide survey that asked people if they were happy with their provider and if they would pay more for better service. This data was collected by address and then plotted on a map that was distributed to the Internet providers.
He concluded his presentation by comparing getting the Internet into a town as the 21st century equivalent of the railroad arriving towns back in the 1800s and how they attracted the railroads.
The town board took no action at the Feb. 12 meeting, but did say that the topic would be on a later agenda for action.
Jamie Taylor may be reached at email@example.com.