Waiting for the town hall in Rutland to be connected to the internet, Deana Zentner felt like a little kid on Christmas.
As town chairperson of the Dane County community of just over 2,000 people, Zentner never got used to the idea that the seat of town government, just 30 minutes south of Madison, still lacked internet access 21 years into the 21st century. Even cell service was unreliable. But looking at the 1970s building, which doubles as a municipal garage, it wasn’t surprising. Inside, its burnt orange carpet and voting booths with fabric privacy curtains recall an analog era. Outside, the surrounding farms make the capital city feel far off.
Zentner and her colleagues learned to make it work. They got used to running meetings without looking anything up online. And Dawn George, town clerk for over three decades, manages administrative duties from her internet-connected home. She has no office in the town hall.
“There is absolutely spotty signals or no signal, so we have limped through that,” Zentner said. “Oftentimes, we want to reference a document or reference communication, and it's impossible.”
For at least a decade, town officials trying to get the building connected were told the same thing many rural residents have been told: It can’t be done, at least not in a way that local internet providers consider profitable. There wasn’t a fiber-optic cable network nearby, and the surrounding trees and hills would make it impossible to pick up a signal broadcast through the air.
It’s unclear just how many Wisconsin households don’t have adequate internet. The latest maps from the Federal Communication Commission indicate that around 400,000 people in the state don’t have the infrastructure needed for an internet connection fast or reliable enough to meet the federal definition of broadband. That federal standard requires download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second. The state’s Public Service Commission, meanwhile, puts the number closer to 800,000 — nearly 14% of the state’s population.
It’s not just rural residents who are struggling to get connected. Many Wisconsinites live in suburban and urban neighborhoods with adequate infrastructure but can’t afford fast, reliable internet service. For these residents, paying bills online, attending online classes, working from home, and connecting with far away family members can be challenging, if not impossible.
In Dane County, nearly 14,000 residents don’t have any internet access, according to the Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey. That includes those who don’t have the infrastructure, can’t afford service or don’t have the computer skills or interests that would make them want it.
As the COVID-19 pandemic turned homes into classrooms and offices and made in-person government meetings unsafe, it called new attention to that unequal access and reminded policymakers that it’ll take more than wires to get many families connected.
But the pandemic also created momentum on this long standing and costly challenge at multiple levels of government. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers declared in January that 2021 would be the “year of broadband access,” saying he wants to bring every Wisconsinite “access to reliable, high-speed internet.”
The Public Service Commission has since distributed a record-setting $28 million in state-funded grants for broadband access with plans for another $100 million round using federal aid. At the federal level, the $1.9 trillion dollar American Rescue Plan Act included broadband as a priority. Additionally, the Federal Communication Commission authorized a temporary $3.2 billion program to temporarily subsidize internet bills for low-income families and a $7.17 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund targeted at schools and libraries.
Zentner calls the roughly $200,000 that Rutland received through the American Rescue Plan Act “a windfall.” With $3,000 of it, she was able to hire Madison-based internet provider Four Lakes Broadband, which found a creative way to connect the building. A neighboring farmer agreed to let the company mount an antenna on his silo, and they outfitted the tall salt shed near town hall with an antenna to pick up that signal. Then they ran wires from the salt shed to town hall.
Still, in the days leading up to the installation, Zentner couldn’t shake her nerves. She worried someone from Four Lakes would break the news that it wasn’t going to work after all. But the connection was successful, and by May 18, the town had set up the webcam and screens needed to hold its first hybrid meeting.
“I’m taking a big sigh of relief,” Zentner said after the meeting.
‘Simply out of reach’
When Dane County Supervisor Kate McGinnity, District 37, ran for office in 2020, internet access was one of the issues her constituents brought up most.
“We have pockets where nothing exists,” McGinnity said.
Approximately 25% of Dane County’s rural residents say they lack accessible, reliable and affordable broadband, according to the county. To address these gaps, the County Board created a task force that will investigate how to expand broadband infrastructure to more rural areas in the county. Meanwhile, County Executive Joe Parisi identified $5 million out of $106 million in American Recovery Plan funds for county broadband projects, but has not yet determined what these will be.
But even determining how big the problem is in Dane County can be tricky because the FCC’s maps show a Census block as being connected even if just one house in the block is connected.
Mark Porter, self-designated IT support for the town of Rutland and a former Rutland town chairman, described a “patchwork quilt of internet” throughout the town that makes a fast, reliable internet connection difficult to obtain. Porter said coverage from the municipalities of Stoughton, Oregon and Brooklyn and the unincorporated area of Cooksville reaches some populous areas of the township, but the rest get ignored.
Trying to convince internet providers to extend service to the less dense parts of the town “is like pulling teeth,” he said. “The legacy carriers have either no money or very little incentive to upgrade or improve their infrastructure and as a consequence, they don't.”
But, he said, Rutland doesn’t have the money to fund the work itself. The town has an annual budget of roughly $1 million, just enough to pay for road improvements, fire and EMS services and town upkeep.
“Looking at anything beyond that to broadband is just simply out of reach financially,” Porter said.
It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: If more parts of town had good internet, he said, the town might attract more people, lifting property values and adding to the town coffers.
“That's where I'm hopeful that with the increased emphasis of the federal and the state level, that maybe this will allow us to find some funding, and really push this forward finally,” he said.
James Danky, a Dunkirk resident and associate faculty member at UW-Madison, is hopeful that his rural community could soon get more reliable service. After years of fighting to preserve the rural landscape and oppose proposals that would bring high-voltage power lines to southern Dane County, he turned his activist energy toward the fight for better broadband in rural communities.
“It is something that everybody expects to have happen in the same way that if you turn on a tap that your water will come on,” said Danky, who moved to his 10-acre farm four miles south of Stoughton in 1978. Today, he connects through a signal extender mounted on top of a neighbor’s barn silo.
He thinks it'll take people like McGinnity, who lives in Cambridge, to make progress, as the issue might never make it onto the radar of those representing urban areas. Just as rural residents may be unaware of urban problems, he said, representatives from Madison may take fast, reliable internet for granted.
“The priorities of the city of Madison are not the priorities of people who live in rural Dane County,” Danky said.
In Madison, a different digital divide
By contrast, Madison might look like a connection oasis. Thanks to the Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network project, funded in 2009 through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, high-speed fiber-optic cables connect education, health, government and nonprofit institutions in the Madison area. Many residents have a choice between wired broadband from Spectrum, AT&T or smaller providers.
“I wouldn't say that fiber is everywhere it needs to be, but we certainly are doing better than rural areas,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said.
But when Madison’s schools moved online in spring 2020, teachers and administrators still found themselves staring at a digital divide. The district sent its nearly 27,000 students home with Chromebooks, but was aware that at least a couple thousand had no access to the internet beyond cellular networks on a phone. Later in the spring, the district outfitted school buildings with extended wireless internet so families could access it from parking lots and spent nearly $560,000 to purchase more than 1,800 hotspots and six-month data plans for the devices, with the plans extended for this school year at an additional cost. But those devices, which depend on the strength of the cellular network in the student’s neighborhood, proved insufficient for those with spotty coverage.
The biggest barrier facing Madison families? The cost of internet service, according to Shawn Steen, executive director of DANEnet, a nonprofit that helps low-income Dane County residents get online.
According to broadband research group BroadbandNow, the average internet plan in Madison costs $60 a month, which includes introductory rates that spike after the first year. Steen puts the number closer to $100, around what the average Wisconsin family pays for electricity.
DANEnet helps Dane County families apply for discounted internet service and get low-cost refurbished devices. The discounts offered locally by AT&T and Spectrum provide connections of 10 to 30 megabits per second for $10 to $20 per month, and AT&T temporarily waived the data limit for its discount subscribers during the pandemic.
But the discounts are only available to families that meet eligibility criteria, like qualifying for food stamps or having a child who is eligible for free or reduced lunch at school. In some cases, current subscribers and previous subscribers who owe money for past bills are not eligible.
Given those various restrictions, a “massive swath” of Dane County families don’t qualify, Steen said.
“All the working poor, the people who are working two or three jobs, they wouldn't qualify for that,” she said. “If they want internet, they're gonna be paying more than $100 a month, and that's a lot of money for poor working families.”
When the pandemic arrived, some who managed to pay their bills before fell behind. More than 800 internet providers signed an FCC pledge to not disconnect customers who didn’t pay during the pandemic, but that agreement ended a year ago. Local nonprofits, including the Progress Center for Black Women and 100 Black Men of Madison, stepped in to get people caught up and reconnected.
“We found that when COVID-19 hit, many of the problems that were already there were exacerbated by the pandemic,” 100 Black Men of Madison President Floyd Rose said, calling his organization’s aid a “stopgap.”
But cost isn’t the only barrier to access in Madison. Some residents live in homes with no good internet options, such as basement apartments, or in buildings that allow only one internet provider, eliminating options for tenants. Meanwhile, in a process some call “digital redlining,” service providers invest in better infrastructure for more affluent neighborhoods while other neighborhoods — often communities of color — are left with antiquated systems.
Though Madison has been discussing ways to expand internet access for several years, the process has been met with a series of setbacks. A 2016 pilot program meant to bring internet access via a fiber-optic broadband network to four low-income Madison neighborhoods connected 19 customers and ended after legal issues with the original provider.
“If you just think about that price tag, nearly a million dollars for 20 families, it’s not exactly the desired outcome of that program,” said Scott Resnick, a former alder who ran for mayor in the 2015 election. “That essentially caused sort of a chilling effect within city hall to stop experimentation in that way.”
Local governments ‘hamstrung’
The national conversation about access to broadband internet began to change when Americans saw photos of children doing their homework in McDonald’s parking lots, said Thomas Philippon, a New York University finance professor who studies the market for broadband.
“I think it’s a pity that we had to wait for that to realize that it's hugely unequal, and it's terrible for many families,” he said.
But discounts and subsidies won’t fix what his research indicates is the root of the affordability problem: an uncompetitive market. Twenty years ago, Americans paid less than Europeans for comparable internet service, Philippon found. Today they pay double, yielding greater profit margins than in Europe, and most customers have no more than two companies to choose from. Some don’t have any choice.
In March, President Joe Biden addressed price directly, pledging to “reduce internet prices for all Americans.”
“Americans pay too much for the internet – much more than people in many other countries,” a White House statement read. The administration cited Philippon’s research to back up the claim.
Ideally, Philippon said, federal or state governments in the U.S. would force service providers to rent their wires to other providers, with limits on how much above their own operating costs they can charge. Absent that, he said, the U.S. is left to choose from “not-as-good solutions” like regulating the prices providers can charge or designating minimum coverage areas, requiring providers who serve urban areas to also cover more rural areas.
Joshua Stager, deputy director for broadband and competition policy at the Open Technology Institute, agrees that the government needs to regulate the market to correct the “affordability crisis” and racial disparities in access.
“This has been a gradual dereliction of duty for the past couple of decades,” he said.
Some local governments, including the city of Reedsburg, have opted to bypass private providers by offering their own internet service. But it’s not an easy road. Not only can the projects be costly — a 2018 study found it would cost Madison $173 million to construct and operate a network — but many states, including Wisconsin, place legal limits on the practice.
A 2003 Wisconsin state law requires governments considering municipal internet service to hold public hearings, conduct feasibility studies and adopt ordinances. The law also bars local governments from setting prices lower than those of the existing companies.
“It makes it difficult, and maybe difficult to the point that it feels impossible. Or it might feel like there’s some risk of litigation if it’s not done correctly,” said Alyssa Kenney, the PSC’s director of digital access. And, it might not be worthwhile. “What are you doing this for if it's not to compete on price?”
Critics like Stager say such laws are a response to lobbying by telecom companies looking to avoid competition. He called such preemption laws “problematic” and “deeply anticompetitive.”
Because of those statutory limitations, Rhodes-Conway said it’s not likely the city will use federal aid on broadband projects.
“This is one-time money. If we’re not able to build some infrastructure, I don't want to create a situation where we're helping people out for six months and then it’s gone,” Rhodes-Conway said.
County Executive Parisi also lamented the restrictive state statutes: “The pandemic showed just how wrong the legislature's action was to limit broadband expansion opportunities for everyone and we are currently exploring how the federal funds might be used to bring broadband to more areas in Dane County, despite the restrictions from the state.”
The American Recovery Plan funds, geared toward infrastructure rather than subsidizing customers’ costs, can only be used to improve broadband infrastructure in areas that currently lack access to service that provides download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second, which Kenney said appears to exclude all of Madison. Additionally, projects funded with those federal dollars must provide download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second, making the projects more expensive than if state funds were used. The Department of Treasury, which created those rules, says such speeds are what would be needed for a household where two people telecommute and two to three students are in virtual school.
To Kenney, the federal rule makes sense. “I think people in Wisconsin deserve a high standard of service, and if these dollars are really meant as once-in-a-generation dollars, then they should be used for investments that will last a generation and not a transitional technology,” she said.
The city is focused on boosting digital literacy — which Rhodes-Conway calls “a missing link” in the broadband conversation. Madison recently created a task force to address digital inclusion strategies. The Madison Public Library partners with DANEnet to offer classes and is thinking creatively to get homes connected.
Library Director Greg Mickells said he wants to develop a holistic program that could be implemented in Community Development Authority-run housing to connect people with wireless hotspots, devices, digital training and other services, if needed, like financial literacy training,.
“There’s so many people out there that don’t have sufficient digital literacy to sometimes even know the advantages of being connected to broadband and having that resource available,” Mickells said.
Is ‘fast enough’ fast enough?
Despite the state law that Steen says “hamstrings municipalities,” she sees ways to expand affordable access. She’d like to see local businesses and agencies that already have high-speed connections — and aren’t subject to the state law — boost their own Wi-Fi signals so that those in the surrounding homes can connect.
And at DANEnet, Steen is launching a 24-hour hotline to help Dane County residents find out if they qualify for help paying for internet access. The project will also help DANEnet finally measure the local gaps and figure out what it would take to fix them, since the call center will report back how many calls it receives and whether or not the callers qualified for existing programs.
Soon she’ll know how many people aren’t qualifying due to income limits, for example, or because they owe money for prior bills. “If it turns out that ... we need to raise $10,000 bucks to pay off folks’ broadband bills so they can sign up for plans, then I'll do it.”
T-Mobile also recently donated 50 wireless hotspots which will provide Wi-Fi up to a monthly data limit. Thanks to a $12,000 private donation, she’ll be able to cover the service for six months.
“We're gonna just use those for the most vulnerable people that need internet,” Steen said, explaining that the organization received referrals from local caseworkers. “They can borrow it for two weeks until we can find some more long term solutions.”
Resnick is still holding out hope for city-based internet service. His pick: citywide wireless internet. It might not be fast enough for video gaming, but it would be enough for most people’s everyday tasks, Resnick said, explaining that he often works from a 30-megabit-per-second connection.
But Sabrina Madison, founder of the Progress Center for Black Women, worries that efforts to expand internet access by offering slower speeds are still perpetuating the digital divide. She said she’s worked with families trying to find enough money to switch from discounted to market-rate internet plans so that they can get faster service or eliminate data caps, allowing multiple members of the family to use the internet simultaneously.
“It’s wild to me that families who are already at a disadvantage would get this cheaper, less fast (service),” Madison said. “I didn’t even realize there was a different version of the internet that could be slower … It just doesn't make any sense to me.”
Unequal access to the internet also reduces Madison’s ability to address its notorious racial disparities in graduation rates, Steen said. “When you think about who is affected the most by digital inequities (in) access to affordable broadband and technology, it is going to be families of color … You almost can’t talk about broadband and digital inequity without talking about racial inequities.”
But to 100 Black Men of Madison’s Rose, any city effort to provide a free baseline of access would be a step in the right direction, especially for families struggling just to meet their basic needs. Arguments over speed “kind of cloud the issue,” he said.
“I'm not saying they don't deserve the best of the best, but right now the focus here is, Is it fast enough that the teacher can speak with your children? Is it fast enough that you can make application for a job? Is it fast enough for you to communicate with the outside world, that maybe you can find a book that you might want to read?
“I don't want to take away any opportunity that could get them adjusted to what I think is the future, which is a greater dependence on internet access.”
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