By Ashley Spinks, Communications Coordinator, NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association
November 20, 2018
At Cochrane Cooperative Telephone Co. (CCT; Cochrane, Wis.), everyone stays busy. And according to Chief Executive Officer Gina Tomlinson, that’s par for the course at a small office like CCT's.
“When you’re a small office, you’re always busy,” Tomlinson said. Factor in that due to an ongoing buildout, Cochrane will have grown 50% larger by the end of 2019, and “It’s been a little crazy. But it’s a good crazy.”
CCT, a 2018 Smart Rural Community Showcase Award winner, is deeply invested in its community in rural Wisconsin, but it has a particular concern for the success of local schools and students. According to Tomlinson, nearby Alma, Wis., and the surrounding area is mostly residential, so the primary breeding grounds for growth, education and community development are the schools. “We’re very passionate about the local schools,” Tomlinson said. “It does take a village to raise a child. We really believe that and try to support it by every means possible.”
In 2009, CCT began building fiber to the home (FTTH), and knew the importance of including neighboring Waumandee, Wis in that project. “If a photographer wanted to take pictures of rural, farming America—that would be Waumandee,” Tomlinson said. “They call it God’s Country.”
Within the town of Waumandee is the St. Boniface parochial school, an icon and pillar of the local community. If CCT hadn’t been able to provide the school with internet, St. Boniface may have shut down—but with its fiber connection, the school can now “do the same things other schools can do and achieve,” Tomlinson said.
In the Alma Area School District, which serves 300 students from pre-K to grade 12, a fiber connection provided by CCT supports gigabit broadband speeds. “[The school district is] very progressive,” said Tomlinson, “but they didn’t have enough speed [before] to do all the things they wanted to do.” Now, the schools within the Alma Area district have new capabilities, such as using interactive white boards and hosting virtual classrooms for AP classes. Prior to accessing this gigabit connection, Alma schools had limited course offerings because the staffs and student bodies were so small. Now, Alma-area schools can “build” a large enough class to offer AP curricula because they can connect with “different kids from all over,” Tomlinson explained.
Following their success in Alma, CCT entered into a public-private partnership to bring fiber infrastructure to the town of Milton, including the Cochrane-Fountain City Community School District. Tomlinson said this partnership is a “four-legged stool”—a working relationship between the co-op, the town of Milton, Buffalo County and the state of Wisconsin. This project is the result of lots of dedicated work and attention by all the partners, including CCT. The co-op was awarded a grant composed of both state and county funds—Tomlinson said the funding for the broadband grant program was bolstered going into the 2018 election year. This paid for one-third of the project, with CCT and the town of Milton contributing the remaining two-thirds.
Before this recent buildout, many of the students in Milton, Tomlinson said, were lucky if they had access to dial-up internet. This stifled their ability to thrive academically, because the students were trying to finish homework “in the parking lot of the school gym, or the hall of the school … now, they’re going to have access at home.”
“It goes back to this: It takes a village to raise a child, and if that village is flourishing, the children are encouraged to come back.”
For Tomlinson, improving access to opportunity and fostering economic development in rural Wisconsin is personal. “I so relate to this community and what they can do,” she said. Tomlinson, too, grew up in a small town, and understands students’ impulse to move away after graduation due to a lack of resources and opportunities. However, CCT is working to reverse that trend. “We encourage the kids to come home after college, and they’re starting to [do so] now—they have better broadband here than they do in urban areas. These kids think differently. They’re [part of] small businesses and entrepreneurship.”
Tomlinson said that increased access to broadband has helped those who remain in Buffalo County to telework. Earlier this year, the town of Milton became a Broadband Forward! certified community, which is state-level recognition of the town’s robust network. Milton is additionally a Telecommuter Forward! Community—a program that recognizes local units of government that have met criteria for promoting telecommuting opportunities in partnership with broadband providers, economic development professionals and the Wisconsin Broadband Office.
Reflecting on the years of work that Cochrane has spearheaded or supported to improve educational and economic opportunities in rural Wisconsin, Tomlinson said, “It goes back to this: It takes a village to raise a child, and if that village is flourishing, the children are encouraged to come back.”