The Vilas County Economic Development and Tourism Committee will make rural broadband a standing agenda item, prioritizing the area’s rural internet needs, supervisors decided on Wednesday, Nov. 6.
Internet access in the Northwoods continues to be a struggle for many residents, tourists and businesses, the committee reviewed.
Microsoft Airband Initiative
One option the committee has been looking into is the Microsoft Airband Initiative.
The Microsoft Airband Initiative aims to partner with organizations to utilize TV whites space devices and other low-cost wireless technologies to make it simpler and more affordable for people to get online, committee members learned.
Microsoft has noted that “… the digital divide in this country is an urgent national crisis that must be solved” and it aims to work with internet service providers to remedy that through their Airband Initiative.
Efforts are underway to provide the funding and assistance needed to expand broadband coverage for such areas, by the administration, Congress, governors and the private sector, including Microsoft and their Airband partners.
“We’ve had zero response from Microsoft so far,” supervisor Marv Anderson informed fellow committee members of his attempt to learn more about Airband.
Those who reside in rural areas lacking broadband face higher unemployment rates, see fewer job and economic opportunities and put school children behind peers in larger cities, Microsoft has noted.
“I’m hopeful we’ll get a more direct response from a letter we sent (in September) … about their initiatives,” Anderson added.
Further, current internet often does not deliver at speeds promised by companies, supervisor Jay Verhulst noted.
“It’s basically a state issue, and the counties suffer for it,” Vilas County Economic Development Corporation (VCEDC) executive director Bob Egan said.
Verhulst aims to go to the state level regarding high-speed internet, he indicated.
“We should continue to ask Bob (Egan) and Bob’s replacement to keep working on this,” Anderson said. “We need to work with folks doing the job … because if we don’t, we’ll be sitting here next year doing the same and wondering … let’s say, ‘Here’s the county, let’s get on the train with these folks’ … (I want) to say we’re doing something in this county … this is an important issue and should be a focus for the county board as a while.”
Update from Egan
At last week’s meeting, the committee also heard from soon-to-retire as VCEDC executive director Egan that the new, full-time executive director will start this week. Egan will remain on temporarily in his interim, part-time position to assist in the transition. He has served in that role for about six years now. After, Egan will serve as a VCEDC board member.
“This organization has done a lot of good,” Egan told the committee. “A lot is based on relationships … it will take her awhile to build those. My job is to bridge the gap.”
Egan also reported work continues with an enhanced fairground business plan with that board as well as determining the future of the former Phelps hospital property. That property is currently being cleaned up. No obvious contamination has been found, Egan noted.
Further, VCEDC is revamping their classes, which work with potential business owners in the area to develop or determine if their idea would be effective in Vilas County. Classes will now have more one-on-one assistance and focus upon what that person needs the most aid in, Egan relayed.
“(Attendees) either have a business plan they can take to the bank, or they realize they shouldn’t mortgage the house. We consider either a total win,” Egan said of the class.
“Zeroing in on their needs. I think that’s a good way to go,” committee chair Holly Tomlanovich said.
In other business, the committee:
• Learned a petition that collected more than 5,300 signatures in the Land O’ Lakes area asking for better cell phone coverage in the area helped influence a tower that will soon be erected there. The cell providers that may use that tower have yet to be determined, Egan said.
“The company saw enough need to support it,” he added. “(The petition) was enough to create buzz with Verizon and AT&T … it was a monumental task, but seemed to be effective.”
• Got a report that the “pop-up” shop efforts in Land O’ Lakes continue to do well, according to Egan. There are currently six shops in a downtown location — including a wood carver, jewelry seller, home-baked goods vendor and yarn shop.
• Learned the revolving loan fund continues to be an option for incoming businesses in the area. There have been no recent applications for the loan, which has a goal of providing gap funding paired with larger secured loans from banks or other investors.
• Went over a report from Pilch and Barnet that covered goals in the upcoming year for tourism promotions.
Lyn Barnet relayed that e-newsletters and social media continue to be excellent platforms to draw in new and current visitors to the Vilas County area. Fan and follower growth has continued on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest, she added.
“It’s really nice to have a different platforms for all these media,” Barnet said.
In the coming year, the company is looking to continue giveaways to gain more followers as well as more photography requests, auto tours and continuing to promote the areas rich recreation, shopping, dining and lodging opportunities.
“It performs really well,” Barnet noted of giveaway promos.
Ads on TV and places like YouTube were shortened this year and that has been a higher success than the longer ads, Barnet said.
Pilch and Barnet also will encourage more use of the Vilas County trails app. Information via surveys is expected to be collected in coming months that will review how people use the app, if there are issues or what could be done to improve upon it, Barnet said.