The Rebuild Rural Coalition in late January asked for President Joe Biden’s support in rebuilding rural America’s infrastructure. In a letter to Biden the coalition cited needed improvements in roads, bridges, locks and dams. But it also cited rural-broadband access as greatly needing improvement. The coalition of 250 groups acknowledged that federal resources alone can’t solve the country’s infrastructure problems.
“Creative solutions that pair federal investment with state-local-government investment and private sources of capital hold promise for raising a portion of the funds necessary to do the job for some of these infrastructure priorities,” the coalition wrote. “We urge you to ensure rural people have a voice in infrastructure priorities …”
Brittany Beyer serves as chairperson of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access in Wisconsin. She echoes the Rebuild Rural Coalition’s call for creative solutions that combine federal, state and local investments. Communities, internet-service providers and philanthropies need to partner to improve broadband access, affordability and adoption, she said.
Since August 2020 the Wisconsin task force has met about every six weeks. It now will be meeting monthly. Subcommittees also will be meeting on a monthly basis.
The group is comprised of about 25 individuals – telecommunications-company representatives, state senators and representatives, and others. It’s charged with preparing an annual report addressing the current state of broadband in Wisconsin as well as recommendations to overcome challenges. The report is scheduled for publication in June.
A strategy defining underserved areas through the use of mapping and best-available data will be one of the recommendations, Beyer said. That information plus service-provider input will help determine how to maximize state investments in broadband.
In his State of the State address in January, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said he wants the state government to invest $200 million in broadband infrastructure. The details haven’t emerged yet, but may likely be included in his 2021-2023 budget proposal. That amount would expand upon Wisconsin’s existing Broadband Expansion Grant program, administered by the Public Service Commission.
The 2019-2020 biennial budget provided $48 million for broadband-expansion grants, although the governor’s original budget proposal was for more than $78 million for broadband.
The need is great. In December 2020 the Public Service Commission received 124 applications requesting more than $62 million in what had been the latest round of funding in the state’s Broadband Expansion Grants program. The applications sought to fund projects to expand high-speed-broadband internet access to underserved areas of the state.
Also important to expanding access is technical assistance to communities, Beyer said. A pilot project was launched in October 2020 in six Wisconsin communities – the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, the Ho-Chunk Nation, the School District of Owen-Withee, the town of Cross, St. Croix County and Fond du Lac County.
One of the goals for the Broadband Connectors Pilot program is to help both the Public Service Commission and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation better understand communities’ broadband technical-assistance needs.
The pilot also could provide a template that other communities could follow for meetings, communications and broadband-readiness responses, Beyer said.
“There are a number of public and private partnerships we could build as well as working within our national, state and local governments,” said Wis. Sen. Brad Pfaff, D-32-Onalaska, who serves on the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access in Wisconsin.
He cited Vernon Communications Cooperative as a good example of a public-private partnership. The 8,000-member cooperative worked with local units of government and private business to expand fiber optic to farms and homes in Vernon County.
“It’s a nice model,” he said. “I compliment the management, team and board of directors there. This (broadband expansion) can be done in rural areas.”
Emily Rozeske, manager of member relations for the Vernon Communications Cooperative in Westby, Wisconsin, said the cooperative has about 2,100 miles of fiber-optic cable in service. To provide broadband service in underserved areas of Vernon County, the cooperative has been assisted in the past few years by state grants administered by the Public Service Commission.
“We applied for and were awarded two grants in 2018 and another in 2019,” she said. “With another grant in 2020 we completed the major part of the project.”
The cooperative has applied for grants for projects in rural Viroqua and Ferryville; hopefully the answer will be coming in March. The cooperative approves of Evers’ proposal for an increase in funding for broadband in Wisconsin, she said.
“Grant money is essential, particularly for the last mile in some areas,” she said, explaining that some areas, such as Ferryville, present challenges with rocky terrain. “Given the pandemic more people are working and attending school from home so the demand is increasing for strong, reliable broadband service. Our members are well-served with broadband but our neighbors in areas such as Crawford County still need help.”
Many farmers need good broadband access, including those with community-supported-agriculture businesses and those with online farmers markets.
Pfaff said, “If what’s being done in Vernon County can’t be replicated, there are other ways. There’s not always a one-size-fits-all solution.”
But partnership opportunities and government funding can go a long way in helping underserved areas.
“I appreciate that the governor recognizes how important broadband is to all people in the state,” he said. “Broadband is a bipartisan issue. I look forward to working with my colleagues on it.”