(Image by Shutterstock)
(Image by Shutterstock)

Rural special session won’t include broadband boost

Wisconsin legislators, at the prodding of Gov. Tony Evers, are moving forward with bills designed to help farmers and rural communities, but it appears getting modern-day internet service to rural areas will not be a priority in the special session, as a proposal to expand the state’s funding commitment apparently will be shelved in favor of a bill to provide more tax breaks to telecommunications corporations.

Some of Wisconsin’s rural areas could receive more high-speed internet access through a Republican bill approved Tuesday by the state Assembly, but a Senate Democrat has proposed a more expansive effort that would provide a much-needed broadband service boost to those regions.

The package of six proposed bills authored by Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, would facilitate increasing broadband service in rural parts of the state in multiple ways, most notably by increasing state funding for broadband expansion to $100 million for fiscal year 2020-21.

However, those proposals appear unlikely to be taken up for a vote before the end of this legislative session, expected to be finished by early March, leaving rural residents without the technology they need, Smith said. 

“This isn’t likely to happen soon,” he said of action on his proposed bills, which have been co-sponsored by Senate and Assembly Democrats. No Republicans had signed onto the proposed bills as of Thursday.  

The Republican-controlled Assembly approved a bill Tuesday introduced by Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, that offers broadband providers a tax break, legislation he said is designed to foster expansion of that service. 

The bill, Assembly Bill 344, is expected to go before the Senate on Wednesday. It is aimed at cities, villages or towns with populations of less than 14,000 that have only one broadband provider or none offering high-speed service. To qualify for the exemption, service providers must meet minimum internet speed standards.

While that proposal would help boost internet service somewhat, it doesn’t go far enough to address “a really big need in our rural areas,” Smith said.

Republicans countered that providing tax breaks to facilitate that work is a more prudent way to accomplish that goal.   

Wisconsin’s broadband infrastructure level consistently ranks near the bottom of U.S. states, with a current ranking of 38th of 50 states in terms of providing internet access. State officials have said they hope to provide high-speed internet to all Wisconsin residents by 2025, but that “will be extremely difficult to do,” without a significant broadband investment, Smith said. 

“You can’t have the rural areas trying to compete with the urban parts of the state and not have better broadband access in these times,” Smith said. “It keeps (rural areas) behind.”

The $100 million grant money would be prioritized to “where broadband is needed most,” Smith said, noting lesser-populated areas would be targeted for that funding.  

Smith’s proposed legislation also calls for such measures as allowing municipalities to apply for grants to hire broadband directors who would facilitate expansion projects. Among his bills is one that would mandate providers not be allowed to advertise as offering broadband services unless they meet download and upload speed requirements. Another would allow municipalities and the state Department of Transportation to require the installation of empty conduit lines on construction projects for future fiber optics expansion.

Trempealeau County resident Henry David, who lives northwest of the city of Independence, said he hopes some sort of broadband expansion is approved by state legislators. 

“The service has gotten better down here, but it still isn’t fast enough,” he said, noting some business owners complain that operating their ventures in the state’s rural regions is difficult without high-speed internet. 

The state is spending $24 million this year for broadband internet expansion in rural areas and others deemed as underserved to meet the demands of business, schools and government. The money is made available through the Broadband Expansion Grant Program, overseen by the state Public Service Commission, and is the largest amount disbursed since the program’s inception in 2014.

However, even that amount is not nearly enough to meet demand. The program received more than $50 million in requests, PSC figures show.  

Progress has been made recently to address a lack of broadband access in Wisconsin’s rural areas. According to the Federal Communication Commission, the number of state residents lacking broadband access last year dropped to about 486,000, down from 748,000 who lacked high-speed internet access in 2018.