Nick Meidl, left, and Kegan Hackbarth install fiber optic lines Nov. 17, 2020, in the Shawano County village of Bowler, Wis. The Wittenberg Telephone Co. is installing hundreds of miles of fiber-optic cable to bring gigabit service to homes and businesses in the area. Wittenberg is one of the most progressive small internet service providers in the state and is working on a project that will bring fiber to more than 700 homes in the Stockbridge-Munsee Native American community. They work for Sheboygan-based AJ Construction WI, LLC. (Photo: Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Gov. Tony Evers’ plan to nearly quadruple spending on broadband access in the state would include about $40 million to subsidize service for low-income consumers, the governor said Wednesday.
Broadband, as defined by the Federal Communications Commission, is a minimum internet speed of 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits for uploads — adequate for streaming videos or taking an online class.
About 430,000 rural Wisconsinites lack broadband access, according to a state estimate, representing close to 25% of the rural population.
Scores of sparsely populated communities remain stuck with internet speeds that lag cities by more than a decade, if they have access at all.
Evers has dubbed 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access” as a way to also address inequalities students face in the virtual classroom during the pandemic.
The governor said he would propose nearly $200 million in broadband funding in his 2021-23 state budget, five times the amount included in the 2013, 2015 and 2017 budgets combined.
His 2019 budget allocated $54 million for broadband expansion in the form of grants to service providers, the largest amount in state history, and the $200 million would nearly quadruple that spending.
“We feel confident that the budget will be in good shape and balanced, and that we will be able to move forward with a few initiatives, one of them being broadband,” Evers said in an interview.
For many reasons, bridging the rural digital divide is a daunting task, especially with solutions such as fiber-optic cable that can cost tens of thousands of dollars a mile to install in rugged terrain.
But the $200 million would get Wisconsin “much, much closer” to having ubiquitous coverage, according to Evers.
“There are some places in the state where we may need to use different technology, but if we need to do that, we could use some of the money for it,” the governor said.
The subsidies for Wisconsinites who can’t afford the service would apply to people across the state including cities, according to the governor, adding that various proposals are being considered.
The pandemic, “has shown us firsthand that lack of access to high-speed internet continues to be a setback for kids, families and businesses,” he said.
“Having access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. Every Wisconsinite across our state should have access to reliable, high-speed internet,” the governor said.
Republican lawmakers could not immediately be reached to address the governor’s proposals, but they may be able to find common ground on rural broadband as the expansion grants have been popular with both parties.
Since 2014, more than 200 grants have been awarded aimed at connecting more than 117,000 homes and 7,000 businesses.
“There’s always a waiting list,” Evers said.
Low-income Americans, including those who have lost their job in the pandemic, would be eligible for $50-per-month internet subsidies under the $900 billion coronavirus aid package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump.
It could take a couple of months to finalize how the money will be distributed, but it’s expected to be made available to internet service providers that provide free or reduced-cost broadband under the new program.
The “emergency broadband benefit” is meant to be a temporary monthly discount that doesn’t have an expiration date but would end when the money runs out or the government declares there’s no longer a public health emergency.
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