Subgroup of the powerful Appropriations Committee helps coordinate all who are working to fill the gaps in service.
Wisconsin’s farmers and rural businesses are resilient, according to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, but underlying challenges were made worse by a pandemic, and she hopes one of her new duties can provide some help.
With Democrats taking control of the US Senate last month, Baldwin became the new chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development. Previously, Baldwin has used her membership on the subcommittee to boost federal funding for rural broadband expansion.
Broadband, or high-speed internet, is defined as having a download speed of at least 25 megabits of data per second (Mbps) and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps. According to the Federal Communications Commission, roughly 7 percent of Wisconsin residents lack access to at least one broadband service compared to the national average of 5.6 percent. That percentage worsens in rural parts of the state, where nearly 27 percent of residents lack access to at least one broadband service. Overall, Wisconsin ranks 30th nationally for broadband access.
“In terms of keeping our future bright and opportunities available across Wisconsin, including our rural communities, a big piece of that is getting that broadband deployed everywhere,” Baldwin said in an interview with UpNorthNews, “because you’re kind of left out of commerce, and e-commerce in particular, as well as many other things like schooling and tele-health if we don’t have robust broadband available.”
According to a report by the research organization Forward Analytics assessing high-speed internet availability, one of every four people living outside of the state’s urban areas lacks access to high-speed internet, or broadband, meaning they often can’t take part in activities in a world becoming ever more based on technology.
The report, titled “Broadband in Rural Wisconsin: Identifying Gaps, Highlighting Successes,” shows more than 430,000 people in Wisconsin, who make up 25% of the state’s rural population, lack access to high-speed internet. The study looked at broadband access data compiled by the Federal Communications Commission in 2019, the most recent available figures.
“We really need to view broadband and access to it as an essential in our digital modern economy,” Baldwin said.
According to Baldwin, there are multiple ways in which the federal government can incentivize providers to boost or extend high-speed service, using grants from the Federal Communications Commission, the Rural Development Office of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the the US Department of Commerce.
But beyond financial resources, Baldwin says a key function of government is coordination among various private sector competitors, local units of government, and other agencies, “so that they are all aware of what one another is doing and all trying to work towards the end goal of universal access, just like when we did rural electrification.”
One of the most vital parts of coordinating services, said Baldwin, involves mapping so that all of the participants in extending service know exactly where the gaps are to be filled.
“This mapping process has been sadly riddled with some problems,” Baldwin said. “When decisions, and funding decisions in particular, are being made based upon this mapping, we know we have to get it right. We have to know which communities are served fully, which are underserved, and which are unserved. A lot of my recent work has been on strengthening the information in the database that we have so that we know where we still have to fill in gaps. And, boy, there’s a lot of those gaps still in our state that I am anxious to catch up with.”
Coordinating broadband service is also critical because it comes in many forms: fiber optic lines, copper telephone lines, cable TV service, and wireless from cellular towers or satellites.
In September, Gov. Tony Evers announced he was directing $5 million in federal coronavirus relief funding to broadband expansion through 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. According to Broadband Now, there are currently 231 internet providers operating within Wisconsin.
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.
Baldwin’s subcommittee will also work with the Senate Agriculture Committee to study how the pandemic created or exacerbated existing problems for Wisconsin farmers.
“Some of the food supply chain disruptions we saw early on in the pandemic really bring up some immediate issues that we could take action on through the subcommittee,” Baldwin said, “and of course, working hand-in-hand with the full Agriculture Committee that does the authorizing and writes the Farm Bill. I’m looking at issues of resilience and helping address some of the underlying challenges that our agriculture economy and rural communities face.”
The full UpNorthNews interview with Sen. Baldwin, is located on our YouTube page.