Efforts to extend broadband internet services to northern Wisconsin face challenges, beyond the task of installing the fiber optic and other infrastructure technology that makes broadband possible.
There's also the servicing of the system and the customer service at the home and office, which now involves a higher level of technical training at a time of declining numbers of people seeking the training.
"We don't get the applicants we need, and we don't have the same level of resources coming out of the pipeline - which is the Wisconsin technical colleges," said Rob Lombard, broadband operations manager at Norvado, a telephone, television and internet services company servicing 13 phone exchanges around Bayfield, Douglas, Sawyer and Ashland counties.
Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, responding to a plea from the Wisconsin Telecommunications Association, is trying to address the problem with the creation of a Broadband Academy, which focuses training efforts. The program is supported by a federal IMPACT grant.
"In 2015, the Wisconsin State Telecommunication Association executive director approached us about online training for incumbent workers," said WITC Broadband Academy Instructor Paul Kostner. "We developed a three-tiered program and worked with a WSTA committee to put together the courses and competencies."
Kostner added that the program has drawn more than 140 different students since its opening in spring 2017, with students taking a single class or completing the entire three-tiered program. Students have the opportunity to earn industry-recognized certifications or a technical diploma.
Companies like Norvado are strong supporters of the Broadband Academy, but according to Lombard, there is a long way to go to fill industry needs driven by advancing technology.
"At one time technicians mainly dealt with the hub of technology at the central office," Lombard said. "Today fiber optics are carrying both voice and internet traffic. Now the devices we put in the home are smart devices. Not only that, but every device being used in the home is smart."
"In 2009, we started building our fiber optic program," said Jeff Lee, chief operating officer at Norvado. "To date, we only have one phone exchange left to do, so 90 percent of our customers are on fiber optic lines. There is more electronic intelligence in the home now. The whole industry is getting pushed to the edge."
All those smart devices in all those homes means technicians have to be smarter, too.
Lombard noted that 15 years ago a technician needed to know the color codes of the cable connections and a little bit about electronics. "But our requirements have gone up, which is why we are so involved in the Broadband Academy program now and support the efforts of the Wisconsin Telecommunications Association."
"We need more skilled technicians. We don't necessarily need more technicians than we used to, but their schooling level has to be higher," Lee said. "We are big advocates of the Broadband program. We have technicians going there to brush up and learn higher-level stuff."
While Lee and Lombard agree that the quality of the WITC graduates are strong, the number of students is down from their own days as WITC students, and the competition for those students from companies outside of the telecommunications industry is intense.
"When I was there we had 50 people in the program," Lee said. "Most of the people wanted to go back home and get a good job. That hasn't changed."
"The number of people coming to WITC for the full coursework has been declining the past 10 years," Kostner acknowledged. "But the number of incumbent workers taking online classes to gain the training they need to stay current with the technology is increasing. The training we are offering today is going to meet the needs. We are even looking to create a pathway through our online courses to a one-year technical diploma."
While the situation is worrying to telecommunications companies like Norvado, it represents an opportunity for people who want to find a well-paying job and stay in their hometowns.
"Internet services and the internet of things is not going away, whether the economy is up or down," Kostner said. "Opportunities in the field allow people to stay and build a career within a company and earn a high wage."
Kostner added that customer service representatives can start at $30,000 and have the potential to earn $45,000 a year, and installation technicians range from $35,000 to $70,000, and network specialists from $40,000 to $90,000.