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COVID-19 crisis shows the depths of the digital divide

Wisconsin, like much of America, is divided between the digital haves and the digital have-nots.

The digital haves have access to affordable high speed internet options at their homes and businesses allowing them to do things like work from home by participating in online meetings, stream educational resources to multiple devices and still have enough bandwidth to binge watch season five of “The Office” on Netflix.

The digital have-nots are those in rural areas who pay high rates for slow or intermittent service. These residents are stuck on the frontage roads of the information superhighway with no way to connect.

This divide is nothing new in Wisconsin. Expanding high speed internet to rural Wisconsin was a major campaign promise of both Gov. Tony Evers and former Gov. Scott Walker during the 2018 election. It is an issue that has drawn wide bipartisan support, at least when it comes to talking about the issue. Actually getting something done is a different matter.

The federal government has thrown millions of dollars away in grants for companies to drag their heels with actually improving connectivity. Companies are happy to take government money but slow to deliver promised results. Rural areas are simply less profitable than urban areas when it comes to selling internet services based on the simple formula of cost divided by the number of potential customers per mile.

A century ago, private utility companies used that same argument to drag their heels when it came to rural electrifi cation. If it weren’t for federal action that opened the doors to entities such as Taylor Electric Cooperative and Jump River Electric Cooperative, it is likely much of this area would still be in the dark.

What brings this issue to the forefront now is the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and the subsequent orders closing schools and most businesses and ordering people to remain at home except for essential tasks.

In areas with high connectivity and access to technology, the transition to at-home work and at-home learning has been, if not easy, at least functionally possible. In areas of Taylor County where even getting a cellphone signal is a hit or miss proposition, the idea of being able to work from home or do online schoolwork is an unachievable fantasy.

Federal and state governments must take a greater role to force action by companies that have taken public funds to expand digital infrastructure. It is not enough to promise results and only deliver when there is a whiff of competition.

The digital infrastructure is as necessary today as roads, bridges and electric power. It is time for the business as usual lip service to end and real efforts to expand digital infrastructure to begin.