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Projects are underway to improve internet speeds in rural America

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Millions of Americans still lack access to high-speed internet. That's especially a problem in rural communities. One small town in Wisconsin has been working to solve the problem and is welcoming the latest national push to expand broadband access. Evan Casey of Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

EVAN CASEY, BYLINE: Around 700 year-round residents live on Washington Island, which sits on the northern tip of Wisconsin's tourist haven, Door County.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. (Inaudible).

CASEY: Courtney and Eric DeJardin have lived on the island for nearly 20 years. They own the busy Mann's Mercantile general store, where souvenirs line the walls. The couple love living on an island but say it doesn't come without its challenges - one of them, slow and spotty internet service.

ERIC DEJARDIN: When you got a business like this where you have, you know, mass customers walking in your door at - from open till close, and if you don't have any internet service, you don't have any money coming in.

CASEY: A few miles from the store, construction workers high up on a utility pole are unspooling several hundred feet of fiber-optic cable designed to go directly into a customer's home. When it's installed, they'll go from having slow and unreliable internet to lightning-fast service. The work is part of a new $7 million fiber-optic network that's running across the islands. Robert Cornell is a manager of the Washington Island Electric Co-Op and the driving force behind the project. He likes to drive across the 35-square-mile island and count the homes with the service.

ROBERT CORNELL: It's kind of fun because this is where we started. And I can go down the road, and I can say, he has it. He has it. They have it. They have it. They have it. We've got them connected, and everybody on this road is connected.

CASEY: In Wisconsin, around a quarter of a million homes and businesses don't have access to internet that can support basic video streaming. Nationally, it's estimated at least 42 million Americans still don't have access to high-speed internet. And more than 20% of them live in rural areas. Now there are projects in the works like Wisconsin's to narrow the digital divide. In June, the Biden-Harris administration announced over $40 billion in federal grants to support broadband expansion through the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program. Wisconsin got around $1 billion of that money to add to its ongoing efforts. And U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo had a promise when she met with residents of Kenosha County last summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINA RAIMONDO: We are going to make certain that everyone around this table and all your neighbors have high-quality, high-speed, affordable internet when we're done.

CASEY: And Raimondo said a fiber-optic network like the one on Washington Island could be the best solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAIMONDO: We are fiber first because it's the most foolproof. Doesn't go out in the white-outs, in the bad weather. So we think it's enough money to do fiber for mostly everyone.

CASEY: It could be several more years until everyone has access across the state, though. And as technology continues to evolve, old infrastructure may be a barrier to bring in high speeds to everyone. But for Washington Island residents Michael Gillespie and his wife, Dani, the new infrastructure can't come to their home fast enough. Co-op manager Robert Cornell often jokes with Dani about the pace of the project.

DANI: Cannot wait till the high speed goes to my house.

CORNELL: It's coming.

DANI: I keep asking, when is it my house?

CORNELL: We move it out a week every time you ask.

(LAUGHTER)

CASEY: The Washington Island project ending the problems with spotty internet is expected to be completed by the end of 2025. For NPR News, I'm Evan Casey on Washington Island, Wis.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANETE'S "ALONE IN PARALLEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Evan Casey