Rural Wisconsin educator sees life quicker and easier with broadband

Having high speed internet access at home has changed every aspect of Julie Tiedens’ life.

“I haven’t been able, in years, to have a weekend where I didn’t come for almost a full Saturday to work,” Tiedens said as she sat in her classroom in Black River Falls. High School, during a brief break between lessons. .

Like many residents of her midwestern Wisconsin community – and statewide – she struggles with slow online connection speeds that make it difficult to live and work in a networked world in the world. fast pace.

“My Internet was DSL service,” Tiedens said. “And at that time my download speed was 0.75 megabits per second. My download speed was 0.5 megabits per second, which when you try to teach video becomes a problem – do anything becomes a problem. ”

Tiedens teaches English and is also a media advisor for Student Reporting Labs, a youth journalism program for PBS NewsHour. Every aspect of her job, from playing videos to taking attendance, is done online.

Where she lives, about eight or nine miles from the school, cell service is also bad – which means using data through a phone or hotspot doesn’t help much either. Even phone calls don’t go through.

“It just depended on the weather and the number of leaves on the trees,” she half-joked. “It was just a little crazy.”

Tiedens would drive to find a hill where she could get better service, then eventually drop out and go to school to use the Wi-Fi.

Worse yet, a lack of broadband access negatively impacts students who have a lot of programs on web platforms. Students will miss homework because their Internet access goes down. Or an entire class that was quarantined during the pandemic cannot interact or engage because there is too much lag.

Before the internet was as imperative as it is today, Tiedens didn’t have to rearrange her life to ensure that it could perform essential functions. She didn’t have to tell her son to stop trying to watch something on YouTube so that she could upload a document for school. She didn’t have to worry about her new refrigerator being on the network and using up precious bandwidth.

“It just changes the way you live and it makes everything so frustrating,” Tiedens recalls. “I am so frustrated with life in general.”

Julie Tiedens, an English teacher at Black River Falls High School and a consultant for her Student Reporting Labs program, teaches a class remotely from her home. Tiedens needs a reliable high-speed internet connection in order to teach web-based programs and work with video instructional materials. (Photo courtesy of Julie Tiedens)

This frustration only grew when she thought government grants seemed to promise expansion. In a 2019 email to U.S. Representative Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, Tiedens explained that she couldn’t understand why her son was in third year when the Connect America Fund II Federal Expansion Grants were handed out. to companies like his internet provider, CenturyLink, and although his son is now in eighth grade, the community has yet to see any signs of progress.

The Kind representative’s office contacted CenturyLink, who responded with information from their planning department about Tiedens’ address.

“According to the plan approved at the time, this noted area was determined to be high cost and was NOT constructed for reasons of exceeding the price thresholds allowed to support construction,” the response read. from CenturyLink to the Kind office.

Two years later, there is still no improvement. Tiedens said she saw CenturyLink install boxes on her daily walks, but did not observe any wiring or power supply installed.

“They’re everywhere, but they never really plug them in,” Tiedens said.

She couldn’t understand why CenturyLink was doing this work to no avail.

A CenturyLink spokesperson said the company had used available federal funds from CAF to provide Internet service where “economically feasible,” and that included broadband access to more than 129,000 customers in Wisconsin.

“The state’s other unserved locations are difficult to serve for any communications provider due to the cost of building and maintaining the network infrastructure and the demand for robust and higher broadband speeds,” added the spokesperson. “Federal programs, such as the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunities Fund, as well as the State of Wisconsin Broadband Grants Program will be needed to reach other high-cost sites in the state. ”

Tiedens became obsessed with her internet problem and was determined to find a solution. In July, she found an option not in the ground, but in the sky. A new service named Starlink, owned by tech mogul Elon Musk, has launched low-earth orbit satellites that provide high-speed Internet access to certain geographic areas.

Starlink’s marketing language on its website indicates that even during its current beta phase, customers can expect speeds of 50 to 150 megabits per second. While other satellite services also offer internet, Starlink says its satellites’ closer proximity to the Earth’s surface allows for low latency, which means video calls and online games become possible.

Despite his excitement that Starlink could be the answer, Tiedens and his family had no hope.

“We were really worried – would we really be able to watch a movie and use our phones at the same time? She remembered thinking.

Starlink sent a kit that included a satellite dish with mounting tripod, router and cables. Tiedens and her husband installed the system in 10 minutes. It was the contemporary equivalent of seeing the world in technicolor for the first time, as Tiedens’ son had never seen a video stream in their home in HD before.

“He said to me, ‘Oh my god, mum. This is what everyone sees all the time. It’s beautiful,'” Tiedens said, remembering his son.

The family continued to test how much their new internet service could handle, and it exceeded their expectations. First streaming TV, then phones – even two TVs can stream different things simultaneously.

Starlink is positioned as an ideal option for rural dwellers who, like Tiedens, are said to be trying to get something better to be prohibitive.

“Starlink is ideally suited to areas of the world where connectivity has typically been a challenge,” the service’s website read. “Not limited by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can provide high-speed Internet access to places where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable.”

A satellite dish is mounted on the edge of a sloping, shingled roof with treetops in the foreground and background.

After relying on DSL service, the Tiedens subscribed to Starlink satellite internet service for broadband, which required them to install a satellite dish and other hardware to access it. (Photo courtesy of Julie Tiedens)

The internet has become an essential function of the 21st century, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. For people who live in rural areas and could benefit greatly from a robust internet infrastructure, it is a matter of community survival. Without good internet, people who live there move, while others do not plan to move to the area.

A November 2020 report from Forward Analytics, a research group that is part of the Wisconsin Counties Association, estimated that at least 25% of students in rural areas in the state do not have broadband at home. And for some of those who do, Tiedens said it’s still too slow to engage in a virtual classroom.

Besides education and entertainment, the report also pointed out that 75% of businesses in the United States rely on the Internet as “essential for productivity.”

Governor Tony Evers declared 2021 “the year of broadband access” during the annual State of State Address on January 12, stating that “this pandemic has underscored and in some ways exacerbated the digital divide that exists in our state “.

A rare bipartisan issue, the Republican-controlled state legislature’s budget committee approved $ 125 million in June for broadband expansion.

On October 15, the Wisconsin Civil Service Commission announced the recipients of $ 100 million in US federal bailout law funds to strengthen the state’s Internet infrastructure. The 83 grant recipients cover 40 counties and three tribal lands.

On the winner’s map, a marker in Jackson County is placed near the Black River Falls area and will serve the town of Alma, where Tiedens lives. While grateful to have fast satellite internet access, she plans to jump at the first opportunity to use fiber.

“I am 99.99% sure that my county, my municipality is served by one of those for fiber, and I will change immediately because we still have these little problems,” said Tiedens.

These small issues include having to cut down nearby trees to make sure the Starlink dish has a clear path to the sky, or losing the connection when there is too much cloud cover.

Just because Tiedens was able to get Starlink doesn’t mean his neighbors are doing it. As the service is in beta, access is extremely limited. Additionally, Tiedens continues to pay both Starlink and CenturyLink for a DSL connection, as the latter company reported that after its service was discontinued, it could not be reconnected.

“They don’t really need us and want us,” Tiedens speculated, citing the high costs.

Yet even though it still pays for a DSL connection, Tiedens is still worried about having to start using it again if something happens to its new high-speed satellite internet.

“It really simplifies my professional life. I feel like it helps my mental health,” Tiedens said. “It just slowed down the pace of my life, which probably doesn’t make sense, but I’m not trying to fit my life into this tight little schedule around my internet use.”

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