Internet providers in Siren, Wis. and a handful of other rural towns now offer what's called gigabit broadband speed, adopting the saying 'big city technology and small town service.'
In the Village of Siren, a community of about 900 people surrounded by nearly 300 lakes in northwest Wisconsin, you can get Internet speeds up to 50 times faster than what most people have in their homes in Milwaukee or Madison.
Internet providers in Siren and a handful of other rural towns offer what's called gigabit broadband speed, roughly 1,000 megabits per second, compared with 15 to 20 megabits per second for a typical cable Internet connection around here. The national broadband average is 10 megabits per second.
It's a big enough perk that some seasonal visitors stay a few extra days at their summer homes in places like Siren or Madeline Island, because the Internet access is so good they can work from there just as if they were back at their office in the city. In many cases, it's even faster Internet than they have at home.
"We love to hear that. Our saying here is 'big city technology and small town service,'" said Sid Sherstad, president and general manager of the Siren Telephone Co., which offers broadband speeds up to one gigabit per second to all of the village's homes and small businesses.
Among the gigabit towns in Wisconsin are Siren, Madeline Island, Bloomer, Wisconsin Rapids and Reedsburg, where the service is available to homes as well as businesses.
Middleton, Waunakee, Verona, Black Earth and Cross Plains are scheduled to become gigabit towns this fall from service provider TDS Telecom Corp., based in Madison.
"We are shooting for October at the latest," said TDS spokesman Andrew Petersen, adding that Waterford and Lancaster are scheduled to get the service by the end of the year.
Home Internet users in Milwaukee and Madison aren't yet offered gigabit speed, which is delivered over fiber-optic cable and can be scaled to different levels such as 100 or 200 megabits per second, depending on the user's needs.
AT&T has what it calls a GigaPower Network that offers the service in Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, but not in many other places. "We have not announced plans to deliver the GigaPower network to residents or small businesses in Wisconsin as of yet," the company said in a statement.
Likewise, Time Warner Cable doesn't offer gigabit service to its Wisconsin residential customers. It offers home users speeds of up to 50 megabits per second, the company said.
What does gigabit Internet mean for consumers? With this speed, uploads and downloads are much faster: A high-definition movie that typically would take about 30 minutes to download would be available in 18 seconds. Users can stream videos with no worries about buffering, and physicians can view X-rays and medical images from their home computer with no delays.
In some cases, you could download something to a computer as fast as you could save data to a hard drive.
But yes, there's a catch: The service doesn't come cheap. Gigabit speed in Wisconsin Rapids, for example, costs $599 a month. For 500 megabits per second, you'll pay $399, and 100 megabit service costs $199.
Even if most consumers never come close to needing gigabit service, they may benefit from higher speeds such as 100 or 200 megabits that are available from the high-speed digital pipeline, said Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, which represents broadband providers.
"I don't know of any app that would require a full gig at home. But just a few short years ago no one imagined that Facebook would have a billion users worldwide, either," Esbeck said.
In addition to the small towns that have begun offering the lightning-fast service, dozens of business parks and large institutions throughout the state already have it.
Esbeck said he's working with state officials to identify and map the communities and business parks that have extraordinary broadband access.
"If you have a job or a business that allows you to work from anywhere...why not live in Wisconsin? That's an incredibly powerful message for economic development and reversing the trend of higher-paying jobs leaving the state," he added.
Sparsely populated Madeline Island, in Lake Superior, is the latest Wisconsin town to get the service, along with some nearby mainland communities also served by Norvado Wireless, based in Cable.
Norvado received about $15 million in federal Stimulus Broadband Initiative loans and grants to expand its fiber-optic-cable network, which included running an underwater cable about 2.5 miles to Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands.
"We had a few challenges there," said Leo Carlson, Norvado's business and technology manager.
Without the stimulus money, he said, it could have taken 15 years to complete the project.
Bloomer, a city of about 4,000 people in Chippewa County, now has gigabit service available to all of its residents from fiber-optic cable that Bloomer Telephone Co. put in the ground about seven years ago.
"We were one of the first communities in the state, if not the nation, that deployed this technology. Customers can order whatever Internet speeds they want, up to a full gig," said Jim Smart, company general manager.
Some smaller telecoms like Bloomer Telephone have been able to create gigabit towns, practically unnoticed by the rest of the world, because they had to replace aging copper-wire networks anyway.
"We were fortunate the (fiber-optic cable) technology came about at the same time we needed to do that project," Smart said. "It was a big risk for a small company like ours...but we needed to do something to remain competitive."
Smart said his company can offer 100 megabit broadband for about $75 per month, yet some people in the area are still using dial-up modem service that costs $9.95 a month.
"There is definitely interest in the higher bandwidths...but Bloomer is a small town, and it's not like people are beating down the door to come here" for gigabit service, he said.
The smaller telecoms benefit from a cooperative-like network, formed years ago, that allows them to tap into a fiber-optic cable pipeline from Minneapolis and Chicago.
"We couldn't get the broadband speed we need without it. That's how, way up here in Siren, we can get gigabit service to customers," said Sherstad, of Siren Telephone Co.
Wisconsin Rapids became a gigabit city when broadband provider Solarus spent $60 million to bring the service to homes and businesses.
"We have doctors today who are reading X-rays from home," said Mike Meinel, spokesman for the 117-year-old telephone company. "We can scale the bandwidth to whatever someone wants."
©2014 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel