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Employed is a weekly reporting series focused on the new Northwoods.The landscape of living, playing, and working in the Northwoods is changing. Where we work, where we shop, where we reside, and how we support our families looks different than it did even a decade ago. It continues to shift as industry, tourism, retail, services, and natural resources shift.Entrepreneurship, broadband, work-from-home, and COVID-19 are all part of that mix. What makes you wonder, or what story ideas do you have for Employed? Submit them below.

Boulder Junction’s ‘Aggressive’ Fiberoptic Broadband Plan to Set Northwoods Standard

Ben Meyer/WXPR

The internet connection was working as expected at Coontail Market in Boulder Junction on Tuesday.

The grocery, convenience, and outdoor sports store could accept credit cards and access its servers.

But it’s not always like this.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Coontail Market in Boulder Junction.

At least once a week, said owner Steve Coon, there is some sort of internet issue.

“It happens way too frequently with DSL, which is the product, of course, that most rural areas have,” he said.

Coon said internet service is not only slow, it’s unreliable.

“Everything that we do is pretty much broadband-based. When the broadband goes out, it’s obviously a problem,” he said.

Internet outages force the store into a workaround to take credit cards and mean its servers struggle to connect with the second Coontail location in Arbor Vitae.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Steve Coon, the owner of Coontail and Coontail Market in Boulder Junction.

Coon’s level of frustration is widespread in Boulder Junction.

Down the street, public library director Cherie Sanderson saw a nearby pavilion turn into an impromptu outdoor office space in 2020.

“We never envisioned what this summer was going to look like under that pavilion,” she said. “There was somebody in one corner with their office set up. There was somebody in another corner with their office set up. There was a mom and two kids with their homeschool set up.”

Poor or nonexistent broadband at home forced people to use the library’s WiFi instead.

COVID-19 precautions forced them outside the building but within its WiFi range.

Sanderson said the library’s wireless usage quadrupled last year.

“It makes me happy that everybody found our WiFi [and] everybody was using our WiFi,” she said. “But it makes me sad that some of these families had to sit in a pavilion out in the elements because they couldn’t get internet in a populated area.”

But, within two years, a multi-million-dollar project will change everything for Boulder Junction. Coontail will have high speed broadband. So will every business and resident in the town.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Bill Niemuth, a member of the Boulder Junction High Speed Broadband Expansion Committee.

“The electors overwhelmingly said, ‘We want to have high speed broadband throughout the town as quickly as possible,’” said Bill Niemuth, a member of the Boulder Junction High Speed Broadband Expansion Committee.

The committee’s work was energized by a question on a business survey in 2017. The question ended up being so important, Niemuth even remembers where it fell in the sequence – the 11th question of 38 total.

What’s the biggest challenge to economic growth in the town?

“By far, the number one response was the lack of broadband,” Niemuth recalled.

Over the last few years, the committee researched, educated, planned, asked for grant money, and is finally implementing a plan to bring fiberoptic broadband to the entire town.

The $3 million project will put Boulder Junction’s broadband capability on par with that of many big cities.

“This is like moving from the Middle Ages to 2021 with one project,” Niemuth said.

The town government is pouring a million and a half dollars into the effort, and Boulder Junction got a huge grant from the state Public Service Commission. CenturyLink, the service provider, is also chipping in several hundred thousand dollars.

The first of two tiers of expansion should be complete by the end of the year, covering more than 700 homes and businesses.

“We think it’s the right thing for Boulder Junction to recruit remote workers, entrepreneurs, new and expanding businesses, and also protect our existing businesses,” Niemuth said.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
North Lakeland School, a public school located between Boulder Junction and Manitowish Waters.

It’s great news for Brent Jelinski, the district administrator at nearby North Lakeland School.

He thinks about the students he’s lost for the lack of broadband.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
North Lakeland district administrator Brent Jelinski.

“I’ve had families that have come and toured school and said, ‘We would love to come here.’”

But they couldn’t find a home with decent enough broadband to work and learn.

“So then, we lose a family that would have been here,” he said.

Jelinski said 90 percent of families in the district technically have internet access, but in too many cases, it’s wholly inadequate.

“It really was evident that being connected was different than actually having good internet,” he said.

That issue was magnified by the pandemic. In spring 2020, all public schools in the state closed. Most schools tried to transition to some type of remote learning. But for North Lakeland, the challenges were more daunting than in other places.

“We definitely learned that we can’t rely on video conferencing as a go-to [for remote instruction], because there are some students that do have broadband and they can easily connect. But for a large majority of our students, video conferencing just didn’t work,” Jelinski said.

In many cases, the school found a way to deliver paper-and-pencil lessons instead, echoing the 20th century instead of the 21st.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

“This is becoming an important issue for our children. Not having access to broadband is impacting their future,” Jelinski said.

Jelinski is looking forward to the day when he can tell prospective families that, yes, living in Boulder Junction means top-notch broadband is available in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Bill Niemuth admits the plan to cover the entire town in two years is “aggressive,” but he says it’s necessary.

“Our stakeholders are pretty smart,” he said. “They know Boulder Junction is at a tipping point.”

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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