Bridging the Digital Divide: Washington Island’s Leap into High-Speed Connectivity

Bridging the Digital Divide Washington Islands Leap into High Speed Connectivity

A $7 million project is transforming internet access for Washington Island, Wisconsin, promising a future of high-speed connections for its remote community.

Nestled in the waters of Lake Michigan, Washington Island stands as a testament to the beauty and isolation that comes with rural living. But for the Gillespie family and other residents, this isolation has long extended into their digital lives, with “spotty at best” internet service complicating everything from family calls to children’s education. However, a transformative project is underway, aiming to connect every home and business on the island to a new fiber optic network, and with it, the rest of the world.

The Struggle for Connectivity

For Dani Gillespie, the reality of living on Washington Island meant enduring frozen video calls with her family in China, a stark contrast to the high-speed internet she expected in America. Michael Gillespie’s work as a plumber, too, was hindered by the slow upload speeds, a frustration shared by many of the island’s 700 year-round residents. This common struggle has underscored the importance of reliable internet, a utility as vital as electricity and water in today’s interconnected world.

A Multi-Year Effort for Change

The $7 million fiber optic project is a beacon of hope for the community, promising to deliver some of the fastest internet speeds in Door County. It’s a part of Wisconsin’s broader initiative to equip rural areas with the connectivity they need to thrive in a digital age. With similar projects underway across the state, Wisconsin is tackling the challenge head-on, despite the hurdles of funding and the sheer scope of the digital divide.

The Catalyst of the Submarine Cable

The push for broadband expansion on Washington Island gained momentum after a critical power cable failed in 2018. The decision to replace it with a new fiber optic cable has been a silver lining, turning a moment of “incredibly bad luck” into a transformative opportunity for high-speed internet access.

The Fiber Optic Advantage

The technology behind fiber optic cables is what sets it apart, offering a substantial upgrade from the older DSL and satellite services. With the ability to transmit data at high frequencies through thin glass filaments, fiber optic cables offer consistent signal strength and bandwidth that copper wires can’t match, making high-definition streaming and video conferencing a new reality for the island’s residents.

Impact on Local Businesses and Services

The upgrade is not just about streaming movies; it’s a lifeline for local businesses like Mann’s Mercantile and the Washington Island Ferry. For these entities, internet outages meant lost revenue and disrupted services. Now, with reliable high-speed internet, the island’s economic and logistical operations can proceed without the looming threat of digital disconnection.

The Funding Puzzle

The project’s success on Washington Island is a testament to the power of grants and cooperative funding, but it also highlights the financial challenges of extending broadband to all corners of Wisconsin. With state and federal funds in play, the path to a fully connected state is complex and uncertain, especially after recent budgetary setbacks.

The Future of Rural Connectivity

As the Washington Island project progresses, it serves as a model for rural broadband expansion. However, the varying geographic and economic landscapes across Wisconsin mean that solutions like fiber optic networks might not be feasible everywhere. The state’s broadband office continues to search for innovative ways to bridge the digital divide, ensuring that every resident can access the internet speeds necessary for modern life.


The story of Washington Island’s journey to high-speed internet is a microcosm of a national struggle, highlighting the critical need for connectivity in an increasingly digital world. As the Gillespie family and their neighbors inch closer to a future where video calls no longer freeze and businesses can flourish, the project stands as a beacon of progress. Yet, it also serves as a reminder of the work that remains to be done, both in Wisconsin and across rural America, to ensure that no one is left behind in the digital age. The digital divide is slowly closing, one fiber optic cable at a time, signaling a brighter, more connected future for all.