Back in March when the safer-at-home measures were rolled out and the quarantine began, I felt confident that my family was well situated, and incredibly fortunate. We have a wonderful warm home to weather the storm, a freezer in the basement stocked with food, and both my wife and I have jobs that allow us to work from home. On our 16 idyllic acres south of Eau Claire, I felt like the adolescent apocalyptic fantasies I’d once harbored were coming true. If you’re thinking, Who has fantasies of the apocalypse? consider for a moment that apparently, we all do, in some fashion. Whether it’s Young-Adult literature, Hollywood, or a New Testament rapture, the notion of end-times is old as the hills, and somehow, as commercial as gold.
I suppose I always imagined the apocalypse not in terms of utter environmental destruction, untold human carnage, or Mad Max style gasoline shortages. It was mostly about being with my family. As the gears of capitalism ground to a halt, I imagined we would have ample time to play board games, watch birds, read books, and take naps. A very rose-colored apocalypse. As it turned out, COVID-19’s presence in Wisconsin (especially early on) mostly meant no school, a lot of canceled speeches, and my wife working from our guest room. We were blessedly untouched by unemployment, sickness, or death, and I don’t mean to make light of that, only to display my own naivete and privilege.
If there is a drawback to riding out a global pandemic in rural Wisconsin, it’s the internet. Where we live, eight miles from Eau Claire — not eighty miles — the internet is about as reliable as a weather prediction. Most of the time it works. A not insignificant amount of time, it does not, and our only recourse is to flip a button on the router and pray. Pre-COVID, this was just an inconvenience, the kind of thing people living in the richest country in the world complain about because there aren’t other things to complain about, like say, malaria, famine, or civil war. But as the quarantine stretched on, and home-based education relied more and more on internet connectivity, the issue became less of an inconvenience, and more of an actual problem. Sometimes, our children were unable to join Zoom meetings with their teachers and fellow students. Other times, the connections were glitchy at best, like driving an old, rusty, VW Bug with a very bad transmission. Imagine being 7 years old. The excitement you would feel to see your beloved teacher’s face or the faces of your young friends, if only on a computer screen, and then — nothing but frozen or balky images. You would feel like you were stranded on the moon.
It wasn’t just the kids. If my wife or I needed to join an essential Zoom meeting for business, we often drove into town to set up a temporary office at a relative’s home. As my father’s guardian, I have been unable to see him in-person since March. Zoom meetings are my only chance to see his face, or to interact with his heroic caregivers. It is not an exaggeration to say that I find myself apologizing for my internet connection during each and every Zoom meeting.
I do not understand why statewide rural broadband isn’t a slam-dunk bipartisan issue. It should be. It should be the tool with which we fulfill the Wisconsin Idea. Reliable internet connectivity is the fulcrum of 21st century commerce. Without reliable internet, it is difficult to attract young entrepreneurs to rural areas or small towns; it would be like having no telephone connection in the later half of the 20th century, no mailing address in the first half of the 20th century. Or perhaps worse yet, a phone that worked only 70 percent of the time. A mailbox that a postal worker could find only 70 percent of the time. Business thrives on predictability, on steadiness. Twenty-first century business moves at the speed of the internet, if possible, at 5G speed.
Congress passed immense aid packages in the wake of COVID’s destruction on the economy, but to my knowledge, little discussion resulted about improving rural internet. Why not? My most cynical theories are that politicians representing such districts are actually perfectly content with how things are. So what if their constituents don’t have ready access to information or the news? Who cares if populations drop in these areas? Sure makes it easier for the powers-that-be to gerrymander smaller populations into larger districts while focusing urban or semi-urban districts into tiny bull’s-eyes.
If you love small-town America, small-town Wisconsin, nothing is more heartbreaking than witnessing a hollowed-out Main Street lined with abandoned storefronts. But I’ve always thought small-town America offered great opportunities for young people struggling to get by in America’s metropolises. Imagine if every small town in Wisconsin had reliable lightning-quick internet. Suddenly, those beautiful old brick buildings along Main Street, with their rock-bottom rents and easy commutes, might look a lot more attractive to younger entrepreneurs looking to mitigate startup costs.
This isn’t the apocalypse, thankfully no, not by a longshot. But it is a moment in American (and Wisconsin) history that reveals our weaknesses, and the sincerity of our political responses. I wish every rural Wisconsin politician would take the time to join a Zoom call with one of their young constituents, a third-grade girl for example, who wants nothing more than to learn at the speed of their own attention-span and passion. Or, an elderly constituent who cannot visit their doctor in-person, but now relies on a virtual medical appointment. I wonder, why our politicians aren’t moving faster. They seem as slow as my internet, maybe worse. Let’s flip their switch and see if they still work.