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Wisconsin Broadband Infrastructure Projects Get a Boost from American Rescue Plan


Friday, October 7, 2022

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Some 8,000 households and businesses in Wisconsin will be connected to high-speed internet access due to the American Rescue Plan Act’s Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund.

In Wisconsin as elsewhere, broadband plays a key role in economic, public, and social sectors, including in education, healthcare, agriculture, manufacturing, industry, energy, public safety, tourism, and more. Whether it is a farmer leveraging precision agriculture, a student accessing learning opportunities online, a jobseeker applying for work, or a family member or friend staying connected, broadband brings endless potential and an essential ability for participation in modern society. 

In his January 2021 State of the State Address, Governor Tony Evers (D-WI) declared 2021 “the year of broadband access” in Wisconsin. Proposing a $200 million investment in broadband over the next two years, he sought to ensure every Wisconsinite has “access to reliable, high-speed internet.” In his 2019–21 Executive Budget, Governor Evers proposed an accessibility goal for the State of Wisconsin that by 2025, all homes and businesses within the state have access to high-speed broadband that provides a minimum of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload (or, 25/3 Mbps). This was the first time that a governor had established an accessibility goal for the state. As of May 2021, the state had awarded $78 million to 279 projects since the Wisconsin’s broadband funding program was launched in 2014 under former Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI). 

The Digital Divide in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is at a critical juncture in its broadband story and is facing monumental challenges. One critical challenge is identifying the locations in the state that don’t yet have access to broadband. In its 2021 Broadband Deployment Report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated that 6.8% of the population in Wisconsin (or 394,000 people) lacked access to at least one fixed, terrestrial broadband service with speeds of 25/3 Mbps or better, compared to the national average of 4.4%. Of those 394,000 people, 385,000 lived in rural areas, which accounts for 21.8% of rural residents in Wisconsin. According to FCC data, just 17.7% of the state had access to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) speeds. 

But Wisconsin’s digital divide could be much larger. BroadbandNow estimates that the number of people lacking internet access in the state is nearly double the FCC’s estimate. In 2021, BroadbandNow estimated that 670,592 Wisconsinites lack access to fixed 25/3 Mbps service.

Wisconsin’s Broadband Goals

Gov. Evers established the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access on July 14, 2020, charging the task force with advising “the Governor and Wisconsin State Legislature on broadband actions and policy, including strategies for successfully expanding high speed internet access to every residence, business, and institution in the state; initiatives for digital inclusion; and pathways to unlocking and optimizing the benefits of statewide, affordable access to broadband for all communities in Wisconsin.”

In 2021, the task force set broadband goals and a timeline for the state.

Ensure base-level broadband service to all Wisconsinites with measurable goals:

  • By 2025, all homes and businesses within the state have access to high-speed broadband that provides a download speed of at least 25 Mbps and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps.
  • By 2028, all homes and businesses within the state have access to a download speed of at least 50 Mbps and an upload speed of at least 10 Mbps.
  • By 2031, all homes and businesses within the state have access to a download speed of at least 100 Mbps and an upload speed of at least 50 Mbps.

Point toward the future use of broadband infrastructure by measuring access to 1 Gbps download speed:

  • By 2025, 50% of all homes and businesses within the state have access to high-speed broadband that provides a download speed of 1 Gbps.
  • By 2030, 90% of all homes and businesses within the state have access to high-speed broadband that provides a download speed of 1 Gbps.

The task force also recommended Wisconsin:

  • Explore hybrid models of broadband infrastructure development and ownership. Create a shared-risk mechanism for public/private partnerships that make use of publicly-owned infrastructure to reach underserved locations by private internet service providers.
  • Increase construction and permitting coordination.
  • Increase Broadband Expansion Grant Program funding.
  • Collect internet access data from all broadband providers at a household and business level of granularity.
  • Increase broadband consumer protections and pricing transparency.
  • Establish a State Internet Assistance Program.
  • Establish a statewide Digital Equity Fund operated by a nonprofit or similar organization with a mission to fund, strengthen, and support digital inclusion activities and ideas that lead to all Wisconsin residents having the information capacity needed to fully participate in society.
  • Develop and fund a statewide Digital Navigator program to assist underconnected people and solve a wide range of adoption issues. Digital navigators should be embedded in organizations with strong and trusting relationships with the target populations, with the organizational capacity and cultural competency to make an impact.
  • Assess broadband adoption and lack of adoption among households not adopting internet based on means, needs, connectivity, and prioritization.
  • Align, coordinate, and maximize present and future federal funding.
  • Increased funding for broadband administration. Establish and support a coalition of willing, engaged broadband leaders to connect communities with providers, local and regional partners, planning and technical assistance opportunities, funding opportunities, and resources.
  • Create planning and implementation grants for regions and communities.

The Wisconsin Broadband Office

WBO’s vision is that all Wisconsinites have the information technology capacity needed to participate fully in society.

Since 2009, the Wisconsin Broadband Office (WBO) has been working to make high-performance broadband more accessible, resilient, competitive, and affordable in Wisconsin. WBO has collected and mapped broadband coverage information for improved planning purposes. As part of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, the WBO serves as the leader and coordinator of broadband goals, data, and strategies across the state.  WBO leads statewide efforts to expand broadband access, adoption, and affordability. WBO provides support to residents seeking internet access, manages broadband grant programs, compiles broadband service maps, and builds capacity through planning and outreach.

Specifically, WBO will:

  • Serve as the leader and coordinator of broadband and digital equity programs, data and activities for the State of Wisconsin.
  • Staff the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access and provide expertise, information and data as the Task Force executes their charge to recommend policy, programmatic, and funding pathways that advance broadband goals and digital equity.
  • Provide interagency leadership, information and alignment of broadband goals, data and strategies across the state.
  • Continue to update and improve the Wisconsin Broadband Map (WBM).
  • Grow the granular data collection program.
  • Use data collected by other agencies, crowd-sourced data and the National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) to continue to improve understanding of access, performance, and costs in the State.
  • Use American Community Survey and other data to provide information regarding whether broadband is equitably available and affordable for people with disabilities, low-income households, women and minority-owned businesses and households that include Black, indigenous and people of color.
  • Continue and grow the effective Broadband Expansion Grant program with strategic investments of grant funds to support broadband infrastructure in underserved and unserved areas.
  • Promote public-private partnerships, prioritize high-performance projects and leverage additional public and private investment in broadband infrastructure.
  • Coordinate and combine federal, state, local, and private dollars to broadband infrastructure investments.
  • Publish the Wisconsin Digital Equity and Inclusion Plan informed by stakeholder input and data.
  • Develop and support intentional activities and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional, and structural barriers to broadband access and the use of information technology.
  • Disseminate best practices for broadband access, affordability, devices, internet adoption, and digital literacy skills training.
  • Update and publish a playbook as a resource for communities and technical assistance providers.
  • Promote community certification programs, such as Broadband Forward! and Telecommuter Forward! and provide support for communities through the process.
  • Support Broadband Connectors Program work, facilitate connections between communities and providers and between projects and funders.

Funding Broadband Deployment in Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Broadband Office administers Wisconsin’s Broadband Expansion Grant Program, which provides public funding to expand broadband infrastructure to underserved and unserved areas of the state and makes the expansion financially viable for eligible entities. Profit and not-for-profit organizations, telecommunications utilities, and those organizations and utilities in partnership with municipalities and counties are eligible to apply for grants.

The state’s grants are awarded to unserved and underserved areas of Wisconsin. The state defines underserved areas as locations with fewer than two broadband internet providers—unserved areas don’t have any providers offering high-speed internet. High-speed internet is particularly lacking in Wisconsin’s rural areas. 

Since its launch, the program has helped 336,111 homes and 22,970 businesses gain access to high-speed internet.

Reviewing the Broadband Expansion Grant Program, the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access found examples of success in grant applications: those communities with documented need, which have done mapping and planning, and which have leadership in place to manage these complex projects are the communities that are receiving the grants. Many are developing countywide strategies that go further in preventing “connectivity islands.”

In May 2021, Governor Evers directed $100 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act for broadband grants, making it the single largest broadband investment in state history. The state later added $25 million.

In 2022, Wisconsin made over $100 million available for Broadband Expansion Grant Program grants. But WGO received 194 applications requesting almost five times that amount in March. Applicants requested $495.6 million in grant funding—the largest amount ever requested under the program.

To date, WBO has awarded 71 projects with support totaling nearly $125 million. To be eligible for support, an organization, a telecommunications utility, or a city, village, town, or county has to establish a legal partnership or joint venture arrangement with an otherwise qualified organization or telecommunications utility.

On October 6, the U.S. Treasury approved Wisconsin’s plan to use Capital Projects Fund support. The state will receive $40 million (21% of the state’s total allocation under the CPF program) for broadband infrastructure, which the state estimates will connect 8,000 households and businesses. The state’s award will fund the Wisconsin Broadband Infrastructure Projects program, a competitive grant program that aims to invest in broadband infrastructure projects designed to provide consistent, reliable service to households that currently lack consistent speeds of 100/20 Mbps. The program is designed to provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical to locations upon project completion.

Wisconsin submitted plans for the remainder of its CPF funds and those plans are currently under review by Treasury. 

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Oct 6—Navigating the Funding Flood (Oregon Connections)

Oct 11—Digital Equity Vision Community Stakeholder Meeting (Benton Institute for Broadband & Society)

Oct 12-14—Anchor Nets (Schools Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition)

Oct 12—25 Years of E-rate: A Reception and Celebration (SHLB Coalition)

Oct 13—2022 Wireless Spectrum Update (Keller & Heckman)

Oct 14—2022 Future of Black Communities Summit (Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies)

Oct 14—Capital Projects Fund Deadline for Tribal Governments (Department of Treasury)

Oct 17—Changing Our (Virtual) Reality: Telehealth and the United States Maternal Health Crisis (Next Century Cities)

Oct 18—Broadband Partnerships: Working Together to Connect More Americans (NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association)

Oct 19—Spectrum Summit (Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy)

Oct 24—Indigenous Connectivity Summit 2022

Oct 27—Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting



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