When most 12-year-old boys call themselves ninjas, the picture of a stealthy warrior from cartoons or Japanese culture comes to mind. At Whitehorse Middle School in Madison, 12-year-old Deacon Smith doesn’t have to be stealthy or dress up to be called a ninja. Introducing the newest fad: the Chrome ninja. Deacon is a designated Chrome ninja at Whitehorse, which means he receives a “Chromebook” and gets to use it to instruct others on applications and do homework. Also, for the first time this year, Deacon and his fellow Chrome ninjas will take shifts at their book fair, demonstrating their knowledge and showing the community how to use the Chromebook’s apps. As his mom, Jennifer Smith, likes to joke, her Chrome ninja is “never without a device.”
Deacon Smith is part of the new plugged-in Wisconsin, where middle schoolers rely on the Internet for their education and Wi-Fi can be found at practically any coffee shop or public library. With Wisconsin spanning more than 65,000 square miles, the state is big and the Internet allows its residents to bridge distances not only across the state, but also across the nation and the world. When people are online and understand how to use the Internet, everyone benefits.
The catch is that connectivity isn’t just about having Internet access—when not everyone knows how to use it, large technology gaps emerge.
Wisconsin does pretty well when it comes to getting people online. According to BroadbandNow, a website that uses government data to help people find the best Internet service in their area, Wisconsin falls in the middle of the pack in terms of connectivity in the United States, with 86 percent of Wisconsin having Internet access in some capacity. But while most Wisconsinites have the opportunity to get connected, broadband connectivity remains a concern because of issues of adoption, speed and affordability.
“I think most people tend to look at [broadband] as access is the main goal. And people, once they have access to it, will just want it, right? But that’s not always the case,” says Jennifer Smith, who, aside from being Deacon’s mom, works for the Broadband & E-Commerce Education Center through the UW-Extension.
Wisconsin’s standing in the global university, research and agriculture communities should help move the state forward in a global context, especially when strengthened by broadband connectivity for all. It harkens back to a core mission for the state’s flagship university, UW-Madison: the Wisconsin Idea.
“That ties right into broadband in terms of, how do you do that, how do you take your tech and transfer it out to the field,” Smith says. “How do you take innovations from the field and send it out to the rest of the world?”
A good way to think of adoption is by asking the question, “Who has access to and knows how to use this technology?” This contemporary approach to broadband and how people use it came, in part, from the White House’s Broadband Opportunities Council Report.
“They actually changed the wording and the context … so now access is a subpoint within adoption,” Smith says, “Adoption is the overarching goal.”
In the context of broadband, adoption can be defined as access in terms of using broadband, according to Smith.
A July 2015 report shows that the conversation about broadband access is shifting not only in Wisconsin, but also at a national level, with the focus moving forward adoption.
According to Smith, more materials such as veterans’ benefits statements, healthcare benefits and medical records are becoming available online only. As these important kinds of records go online, organizations need to be sure that users know how to access them.
“So if user groups aren’t online, they’re going to be left out, and in some cases, in really critical, life-sustaining sort of ways,” Smith says.
Up north in Superior, Wisconsin, Terri Harings is a fourth-grade teacher at Lake Superior Elementary. She takes a lot of pride in leading her “Geek Squad,” a group of 15 fourth and fifth graders, similar to Whitehorse Middle School’s Chrome ninjas, who are responsible for technology happenings at the school. These students all have matching T-shirts, but the benefits they and their surrounding community receive go way beyond that.
“They’re kind of who our teachers can call on, or students can call on, if they need tech support,” Harings says.
Through Geek Squad, students do firsthand work with different technologies, such as taking photos or videos of guest speakers or making presentations for an assembly. Beyond doing the work themselves, they implement it into their school by helping kindergarteners log in to a computer or by adding apps to teachers’ iPads.
Last year, Harings and her Geek Squad held a “Geek Night” in conjunction with the school’s PTA. The night brought out parents and community members to learn about online technologies and all presentations were done by the Geek Squad members themselves. Among the presenters was “Network Nathan.”
“He chose several different websites for reading or math,” Harings says. “He geared it to every grade. So he had the best ones from kindergarten, the best ones from first grade, all the way up. And he showed parents how to do it. He was training parents.”
The night also included presentations about Twitter and Skype, where the Geek Squad answered questions about what hashtags mean and even Skyped with the local state representative, Nick Milroy.
Harings is a veteran when it comes to doing community outreach in relation to broadband adoption in Superior. As an admitted tech geek herself, she participated in designing the Superior School District website in order to foster community engagement.
“Our websites, in the school district, really are considered our outreach for parents,” Harings says. “It’s really to connect with the community and family engagement. And definitely for students. Students are able to access a teacher’s website and extended lessons in the curriculum.”
On the website, students, parents and the community are able to see what each teacher is doing in the classroom through individual teacher pages. This keeps the parents in the loop on their child’s education and allows students to continue their learning beyond the classroom by doing extra activities from their teacher’s page. This online extension of the classroom benefits teachers, parents and students.
“So I would hope, and always encourage people to, support broadband expansion in any community because it can really change education and every other aspect of society in that community,” Harings says. “When people have a purpose to use it, it really drives expansion.”
The best way to understand the different Internet speeds available to Wisconsin residents is to compare these speeds to the speed of driving a car. If you are driving at 15 miles per hour, you will be going at a much slower pace than someone who is driving at 50 miles per hour. In broadband, speed is measured in megabits per second (mbps). Someone who is surfing the Web with a 15 mbps connection will have a much slower experience than someone browsing at a 50 mbps connection, and different providers give their customers access to varying speeds.
In Wisconsin, according to BroadbandNow, the average speed of broadband is 23.8 mbps. At this speed, users are able to send emails, stream music and even video, according to David Salway, executive director at the New York State Broadband Program Office.
However, it is important to note that this is an average speed and is not true for every community in Wisconsin. Speed also depends on location. The Wisconsin State Broadband Office’s LinkWISCONSIN initiative provides state broadband maps, advancing their mission of advancing broadband technology availability, adoption and use. These maps show that both download and upload speeds are higher around more urban areas, like Milwaukee and Madison, and much lower in rural areas. Wisconsin’s average broadband speed also lacks in comparison to states like Washington, where it averages 59.6 mbps, and Missouri, where it averages 48.5 mbps, according to BroadbandNow. Those average speeds are double that of Wisconsin.
According to a 2014 FCC report on broadband, providers can offer different tiers of speed. These speeds are drawn from what kind of infrastructure is in that area. Areas with fiber or cable infrastructure generally have faster speeds than somewhere that has copper line infrastructure, also known as DSL. Wisconsin, like other states, has many different types of infrastructures that affect the state of its average broadband speed. The differences in Wisconsin’s average speed compared with Washington and Missouri could be attributed to these infrastructures.
A concern surrounding Internet speed is the issue of affordability. Providers charge more for higher speed Internet, and Harings sees this in her own community of Superior.
“Once it gets in the ground, and it would be available in their area, is it affordable for families?” Harings says.
Choosing a provider that fits the need for speed at an affordable rate is a complicated process. WiscNet, a nonprofit Internet provider that served the UW System up until 2013, fit the system’s speed needs at an affordable rate and already had infrastructure that connected all UW campuses. But the state Legislature mandated that the UW System could not use WiscNet for competitive reasons. According to UW-Madison’s Division of Information Technology, in order to receive the service it needs, the UW System had to build another infrastructure system, which will cost the UW System an additional $7.2 million. WiscNet still exists, continuing to serve schools, libraries, municipalities and hospitals across the state.
In light of adoption, speed and affordability issues, Wisconsin has moved forward and will continue to move forward with various efforts by policymakers, UW-Extension, community organizations and community members. These efforts and the benefits of broadband can be seen in specific instances all across Wisconsin.
Ashland, in rural northern Wisconsin, is home to many businesses that thrive not only because of the local population, but also because of tourism. One of the most prominent tourist attractions in the area are ice caves, Smith says.
Smith’s Broadband & E-Commerce Education Center held a training in the county that allowed businesses to learn more about their online presence. Nearby, a local outdoor supply shop, Solstice Outdoors, came to the training. According to Smith, many tourists already visit the store to buy equipment for exploring the ice caves, but Solstice Outdoors wanted to further advance its online profile to attract more business. Through the training, the store developed a website and a social media presence.
“They ended up gathering interest from outside the area, which was great,” Smith says. “Kind of increased their sales marginally, but they said, and this I thought was interesting, that more importantly for them was that they gained recognition inside the community.”
According to Smith, this community recognition attracted more business from locals and sparked buzz about the store, leading to an increase in customer referrals.
“And obviously, when you buy local, that dollar stays in the community versus going outside the community to use, so it’s win, win, win,” Smith says.
The Broadband & E-Commerce Education Center held these trainings in six counties over the past two years, helping more than 100 businesses expand their online presence, according to Smith. Such efforts are part of advancing Wisconsin’s businesses through connectivity and watching the ripple effect it has throughout the state’s communities, including Harings’ community of Superior.
“There’s just … time in our history when we didn’t have electricity, every part of Wisconsin didn’t, and that was something people knew was a necessity,” Harings says. “It’s the same, to me, as broadband. It’s become not a luxury, but a requirement, a necessity, especially in my field of education, especially in all of our lives.”