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Wisconsin broadband task force calls for continued funding, support to leverage historic infrastructure funds

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Madison-based TDS Telecom workers install fiber-optic cable near Lodi in 2021. A governor's task force says Wisconsin must continue providing money and technical support to help communities access billions in federal infrastructure funds.

Billions of dollars in federal assistance could help bring high-speed internet service to thousands of Wisconsin households, according to a new report, but not without continued help and funding from the state.

In its second annual report released Tuesday, a task force appointed by Gov. Tony Evers calls on state leaders to continue support for broadband expansion, which has already included nearly $300 million in state and federal funding.

Established in July 2020, the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access last year called for more funding, better data and streamlined permitting, among other things, in order to bring high-speed internet to all homes and businesses by 2025.

Since then, Congress passed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes $65 billion for broadband infrastructure. While the recommendations of the first report “still ring true,” the task force said local communities will need help to do the work necessary to secure some of that funding.

“This is the moment where we have to put it into action,” said Brittany Beyer, executive director of Grow North Regional Economic Development Corp. and chair of the task force. “At the height of COVID, people were finally signaling this is like the electrification of the United States. Now we have the dollars to do it.”

Brittany Beyer

Beyer

Despite the historic influx of federal support, Beyer said there is still work for the state, including the need to continue funding broadband expansion grants for those communities that need help but don’t meet the criteria for federal dollars.

Roughly 650,000 residents lack the infrastructure needed to deliver what the Federal Communications Commission considers high-speed internet (25 megabits per second downloads and 3 Mbps uploads), according to the Wisconsin Broadband Office.

Statewide, the median download speed in 2020 was 62 Mbps, up from 46 Mbps the year before.

And the office estimates there are also 650,000 residents who can’t afford broadband service even if it is available.

Wisconsin broadband access, 2020 to 2021

Among the task force recommendations:

  • Sustain state broadband expansion funding to leverage federal funds and support local projects not eligible for federal funding.
  • Create a guide to assist communities and local leaders in broadband and digital equity planning efforts.
  • Create technical assistance programs to help communities develop plans and navigate funding opportunities.
  • Encourage and support coordination with tribal governments in broadband planning, resources deployment and funding.
  • Develop a statewide Digital Navigator Program to assist under-connected people and solve a range of adoption issues.
  • Develop and improve outreach for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program.
  • Continue advancing the goals from the 2021 Task Force Report.

Lawmakers approved borrowing a record $125 million for broadband expansion as part of the current two-year budget, though that was less than the $200 million Evers requested. The state Public Service Commission awarded that money last month to 71 projects across the state.

Last year the Evers administration used $100 million of roughly $2.5 billion in federal pandemic relief to fund broadband projects.

The PSC estimates those grants will provide new or improved access to more than 387,000 homes and businesses.

“Removing barriers to access, affordability and the use of broadband are necessary to ensure that all can realize its benefits,” PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq said in a statement announcing the report. “Making the investments and taking the steps recommended in this and last year’s reports will set our communities on a path towards getting all connected.”


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