Packerland, Microsoft to team on broadband expansion

An Iron Mountain company is partnering with Microsoft to get broadband internet access to residents of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula in the coming years.

Using TV white spaces, wi-fi hardware and other technologies, Microsoft recently announced it would work with Packerland Broadband to expand broadband internet access to about 33,750 additional people by the end of 2019 and about 82,000 people in the region by 2022.

“Partnering with Microsoft allows us to bring new services and push our services further into the rural landscape in our region and beyond,” Cory Heigl, vice president of Packerland Broadband said in announcing the agreement.

The partnership comes as businesses and politicians look to address broadband internet access in rural communities, where options for increased connectivity can be more limited or difficult to access.

It’s part of Microsoft’s Rural Airband Initiative, which aims to bring broadband to an additional 2 million people across the country by 2022 and provide digital skills training in those communities. In a statement, Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith said the partnership will help bring “the electricity of the 21st century” to northern residents.

As talks on the latest iteration of the Farm Bill for Congressional approval continue ahead of a September expiry date, bringing better internet to rural areas has bipartisan support.

Federal lawmakers and members of the Trump administration also are looking to make internet access more reliable in remote locations.

During the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in Nashville, President Donald Trump said he’d act on issues brought up in an agriculture task force he created last year. As part of that, he signed presidential executive orders to “provide broader and faster, and better internet coverage.”

The Federal Communications Commission currently tracks data on broadband options in the U.S., but some lawmakers are hoping to improve that system.

Legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, that recently passed in the Senate aims to improve the reliability of mobile wireless coverage data available to “reflect the real-world experiences of consumers in rural America,” according to a March 2 release from Manchin’s office.

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Michigan U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, told Michigan Agri-Business Association in January broadband needs to be a priority.

“If we want to truly expand and create jobs all over Michigan and the quality of life that we want in small towns as well as big cities, you have to have high speed internet,” Stabenow said.

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, has called broadband access a growing need for farms and businesses in Michigan that contribute more than $101 billion to the state economy.

In a recent statement, Bergman’s office applauded the partnership between Packerland and Microsoft and said he would continue to support policies to make high-speed broadband more affordable and accessible.