FOREST CO. - Just a few years ago, high-speed internet access was a luxury. But now, it's a necessity.
More people are leaving than coming to Northern Wisconsin, and local officials believe broadband access could help reverse this trend.
"It's not just something that's nice to have," said Jim Rosenberg, Regional Director for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. "It's critical."
The Forest County Broadband Commission is asking the state for $1.898 million to establish broadband connection in 17 towers throughout the county.
"It will make a huge difference for us," said Mark Ferris, Forest Co. Broadband Commission chairman.
Forest County would have a $750,000 stake in a broadband grant. Ferris said it could mean life or death for the county's aging residents.
"The ability for health providers to communicate online with their patients," said Ferris. "It can even go to the point of somebody surviving."
In addition to telehealth, broadband would affect local emergency services as well.
"So you could be on one end of the county, perhaps in law enforcement or rescue, trying to communicate with another part of the county, and not have that ability," said Ferris.
Students are suffering as well. Every Forest County school district administrator told Ferris that their school's curriculum is compromised.
"It limits what can be done by students," said Ferris. "There's an equity situation here. So we have families that don't have access to broadband."
The fate of broadband in Forest County is now tied to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. County officials hope to hear back within a month. They said they desperately need the grant.
"We don't need broadband at every ice fishing shack," said Rosenberg. "It'd be great if it was that way. But we do need to have a backbone of fiber, and to be able to have businesses and farms, students in school be able to access that."