Rural broadband needed (copy) (copy)

While broadband Internet access is accessible in most municipalities, it still has not reached many rural areas in southern Wisconsin. County government officials in the area continue to work with Internet service providers to resolve the issue.

Wisconsin's U.S. senators are asking the Federal Communications Commission to expand mobile broadband coverage in rural areas.

Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin are among 26 senators to sign onto a letter, sent Monday, encouraging the FCC to use its Mobility Fund to develop and improve mobile broadband service in underserved rural and agricultural areas. 

The fund is part of the FCC's Universal Service Fund, collected essentially as a user fee on phone bills. It was designed to help wireless carriers cover the cost of bring service to rural areas. The commission is considering changes along with the question of whether the fund is needed at all.

The senators argue it is necessary, noting in particular how important broadband service is for farmers and ranchers.

"Mobility is essential for new precision agriculture technologies to deliver productivity gains and environmental sustainability," they argue in the letter.

Progress has been made in expanding broadband access, the senators say, but there is more to be done in order to bring rural users close to parity with users in more populated areas. 

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"The expansion of rural broadband should be a top priority of federal and state policymakers, as expanded deployment in rural areas will address important economic, educational, health care and public safety goals," the letter reads.

The senators argue the mobility fund should, at the very least, be maintained at its current levels. They also suggest using updated metrics to get a more accurate read on the level of service in places like farms and roadways, rather than determining coverage levels based on home addresses.

"The Universal Service Fund has been around for a very long time and if we’re going to be collecting money from the taxpayer, we need to make sure that we’re using that funding as effectively as possible," said a spokeswoman for Johnson's office.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.