Forest Co. Has Some of the Worst Rural Internet in the State. That’s About to Change.

Jan 14, 2021

Climbers construct a fixed-wireless tower in the Town of Hiles. It will be one of 17 towers offering broadband service as a part of a new Forest County initiative.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

The cabin sits on U.S. Highway 8 between Crandon and Laona.

When Johnnie Aschenbrenner was growing up, it was his home. Despite being on a major highway, there were no power lines until 1962, so the family used generators for electricity.

Johnnie Aschenbrenner inside the home where he grew up between Crandon and Laona. Now, he rents it as a cabin as part of his resort.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Nowadays, the cabin has an updated yet rustic feel, and Aschenbrenner rents it out as part of his small resort on Wabikon Lake. It’s literally connected to the tiny bar Aschenbrenner also owns. All told, resort guests can expect a pretty modern experience, DIRECTV included.

Except for one thing.

Forget about fiberoptic, high-speed broadband, or even DSL internet service.

Aschenbrenner tries to rely on a satellite service that’s shaky at best. It’s the only option.

“I was trying to watch a five-minute video off Facebook the other night. It took me a half-hour, and I never even could get through the five minutes,” Aschenbrenner said.

Aschenbrenner would love to advertise that he has a good internet connection for resort and bar guests to use. But that would be a lie.

“In snowmobile season and in the summer on weekends, this is packed and that deck out there is packed,” he said. “There are people starting at noon. Everyone wants to know your WiFi.”

Sure, he has WiFi, he tells them, but don’t expect much. You might be able to read an email, if you’re lucky.

Johnnie Aschenbrenner outside the resort he owns between Crandon and Laona.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Aschenbrenner lives in a dead zone in the middle of an entire county currently struggling with broadband service.

A recent study ranked Forest County 68th of Wisconsin’s 72 counties for rural broadband access, hampering businesses, students, people working from home, and patients trying to use telehealth.

Only half the rural residents have a broadband speed of 25 megabits per second, which is often considered a minimum standard.

Climbers work on building a fixed-wireless tower in Hiles.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

But a new initiative promises to start changing things.

Late last year, Mark Ferris stood on a muddy patch of town-owned land in Hiles, north of Crandon.

“What we’re watching is this 300-foot tower is going to be going up in sections,” Ferris said.

Ferris is in charge of economic development for Forest County, and he’s observing the construction of the first tower in an ambitious project.

All told, 17 towers will provide fixed-wireless broadband service to wide stretches of the county. The technology offers high-speed internet access to homes and businesses within a line of sight of the tower, often several miles.

“This is, call it the reality,” Ferris said.

Last year, the state Public Service Commission awarded the county nearly a million dollars for the project. By the end of 2021, more than half of the 17 towers will be online.

“We just have to have this,” Ferris said. “It really goes to survival in Forest County for our families, education, economic development, and particularly now, where we’re at with the coronavirus and the kind of issues it causes.”

The new tower in Hiles will likely be active by the end of the month.

Its height and location will allow it to provide high-speed broadband to parts of the towns of Hiles, Argonne, and Crandon.

From left, Forest County Economic Development Partnership Executive Director Mark Ferris, Forest County Board Chair Cindy Gretzinger, and Forest County Zoning Director Jean Fannin.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

As the Forest County Board chair, Cindy Gretzinger naturally has a lot of issues on her mind, from roads to courts to health.

Broadband, though, is right at the top.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that we have to help ourselves. Nobody’s going to do it for us,” she said.

The way she sees it, agitating for better broadband in Forest County really isn’t much a choice.

“Maybe at one time, broadband internet was thought of as a luxury. It’s no longer that. It’s a necessity,” Gretzinger said. “It’s right up there with electricity and water.”

A part of Forest County that struggles with broadband access.
Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR

Johnnie Aschenbrenner has yet to find out whether his bar and resort will be within range of a new fixed-wireless tower.

In the early 1970s, he was the very last man out of Forest County drafted for Vietnam War service.

Fifty years later, he’s hoping he won’t be the last man in the county to get decent internet service.