Merlyn Coy wouldn’t be in business in Iron River without broadband Internet.
Coy launched his full-service digital dental venture about four years ago, enabling him to drop a two-plus-hour commute to Duluth, Minn., and manufacture crowns, bridges and dental implants via CAD/CAM processing and 3-D scanning.
Underpinning his ability to successfully run such a business for dentists across the U.S. is a stable, high-speed fiber optic network that allows him to upload and download large files quickly and reliably.
Whatever is made at his Dental Metrics Laboratory is made using broadband technology, Coy said.
Coy is fortunate for a business owner in small-town, rural Wisconsin. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 85 percent of Bayfield County homes have access to three providers of broadband Internet. In comparison, 70 percent of Ashland County homes have access and nationwide, 89 percent have access.
The U.S. Census Bureau said in a 2018 report that 76 percent of households in Bayfield County had a broadband Internet subscription between 2013-17, compared with 69 percent of households in the same period in Ashland County.
Bayfield County business, tourism and education all share a need for more connections and — with the modern world now taking instant communication for granted — the faster the better.
The state Department of Tourism recently released statistics showing that direct visitor spending in Bayfield County leaped a whopping 11.58 percent in 2018, an accomplishment that some entrepreneurs attributed to growing access to high-speed broadband.
Visitors come to the Northwoods to get away from it all, kick their feet up or hotfoot it to local attractions, and enjoy the area’s natural beauty. But they still want to stay connected with family and friends back home — and work if necessary.
James Bolen, director of the Cable Area Chamber of Commerce and owner of Lake Owen Resort, said he’s hearing that tourists are extending their stays for a variety of reasons, including beating in-full-retreat-from-weekend traffic and eking out more from their vacation time and dollars.
But Bolen also believes visitors feel more comfortable staying a few extra days because of the availability of broadband. If tourists can do a bit of work over the Internet from their cozy, up-north cabin, they don’t feel rushed to return to the rat race in the city.
Some people eschew the rat race, in-office politics and gas-guzzling commute altogether by working from home, a pursuit many can’t fathom taking without high-speed broadband connecting them to customers and vendors.
Telecommuting has been a longtime trend in the business world, but it doesn’t work without the investment of time and money into a broadband infrastructure.
Bayfield County made a commitment to this by becoming the first Telecommuter Forward community in the nation.
The County Board passed a Telecommuter Forward resolution that streamlines opportunities for people to telecommute and ensures that the county’s broadband network grows, said Cole Rabska, director of the Bayfield County Economic Development Corp.
Businesses also can’t draw new customers to their doorsteps or keep familiar faces returning without marketing, and effective marketing today demands access to social media and the web.
Mary Motiff, director of Bayfield County Tourism, relies on broadband to inform visitors of the many attractions and amenities Bayfield County has to offer.
Tourists can peek at the county’s interactive map giving detailed information about places to eat, indulge in their favorite activities or lodge overnight. Motiff’s online podcasts also highlight the county’s unique features.
Educating tourists is one thing, but teaching Bayfield County’s next generation is another and that can be hindered by a lack of access to high-speed Internet.
Bayfield School District has full connectivity, schools Superintendent Jeff Gordon said. But some students in rural communities don’t have the access the school would like to see.
Many rural students come from low-income families who don’t have many access points to high-speed Internet. That handicaps their children’s education and widens the digital and achievement gap between them and more affluent students, according to New America, an organization devoted to improving and strengthening the educational system.
Efforts continue to expand communication services to the county’s far northern border along Lake Superior, where many low-income students reside.
Gordon cited the new cell tower to be constructed on Red Cliff Reservation, and Rabska said a new wireless service is prepping to open in Bayfield.
Meanwhile, Norvado, a TV, Internet and telephone provider based in Cable, is leading the connectivity charge in Bayfield County.
Although the company’s residential presence is limited due to regulations in Bayfield and Washburn, Norvado has a strong presence in the rest of the county, said Joseph Kohegyi, marketing manager. In its immediate service area, Norvado has nearly 100 percent coverage and is continuing to expand elsewhere.
But in the realm of business, Norvado’s fiber optic speeds shine. Home-based businesses and telecommuters rely on quick uploading and downloading to survive in a fast-paced global economy, Kohengyi said.
Despite being rural and sparsely populated, Bayfield County has made great strides putting people, businesses and communities in touch with the big, wide world out there with quick, modern communications.