An internet tower. (Photo via Pexels/Miguel Á. Padriñán)
An internet tower. (Photo via Pexels/Miguel Á. Padriñán)

Federal funds will go toward the state’s Broadband Expansion Grant program.

Gov. Tony Evers announced Wednesday he is allocating $5 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to broadband expansion in Wisconsin.

The money will go into the Wisconsin Public Service Commission’s Broadband Expansion Grant program, which splits costs with internet service providers to bring high-speed internet coverage to underserved areas. Wisconsin’s broadband coverage, especially in rural areas, leaves much to be desired, a fact only exacerbated by the increasing reliance on the internet for work and school during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This pandemic further illustrates the need for additional funding to expand broadband,” Evers said in a statement. “These dollars, along with our investments from the budget that I signed last year, will ensure that we are maximizing our expansion efforts to get folks connected.”

The Public Service Commission is currently accepting applications for grants to be awarded in spring 2021. The Broadband Expansion Grant program received $48 million in the 2019-21 budget cycle. Evers originally proposed $78.6 million for the grants, but Legislative Republicans, many of whom represent districts among the most needy for high-speed internet, reduced it to the final $48 million.

Expanding broadband is a costly endeavor. It is estimated to cost hundreds of millions, if not $1 billion, to get broadband access to every Wisconsinite, a goal Evers put in place for 2025.

About 410,000 Wisconsinites lack high-speed broadband, which is defined as downloading at least 25 megabits of data per second (Mbps) and upload capability of 3 Mbps. Additionally, 836,000 Wisconsin consumers may not see competitive pricing because they only have access to one provider, according to the Public Service Commission and Broadband Now, an organization that advocates for broadband expansion nationwide. Broadband Now ranks Wisconsin as 30th nationally for broadband access.

The Public Service Commission received over $50 million worth of grant applications last year, according to Evers’ office—more than double the actual available amount of money.

“I commit that we at the PSC will get this funding out quickly so projects can start construction as soon as possible,” Rebecca Cameron Valcq, Public Service Commission chairwoman, said in a statement regarding the new funding.

Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick) praised Evers for putting federal fundings into the grant program.

“I appreciate Governor Evers’ continued commitment to provide reliable, high-speed internet for residents across our state,” Smith said in a statement.  “Today’s announcement—to invest an additional $5 million in broadband expansion grants—strengthens Governor Evers’ existing record of improving Wisconsin’s broadband infrastructure.”