Wisconsin utility regulators have awarded nearly $125 million in grants to help expand access to high-speed internet service.
The awards — funded through borrowing authorized in the current two-year budget — are expected to bring broadband service to nearly 83,000 homes and more than 4,500 businesses across the state, according to the Public Service Commission.
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With the latest round of awards, the state will have given out some $346.6 million in the nine years since the broadband expansion program was launched nine years ago. Nearly two-thirds of that funding will have been spent under the Evers administration, including $100 million awarded last year from the roughly $2.5 billion in federal pandemic relief awarded to Wisconsin through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in the past three years towards getting people access to high-quality, affordable internet service,” PSC chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq said in a statement. “We will continue to make the investments needed to ensure all in our state have access to affordable broadband.”
Commissioner Ellen Nowak said the program has “outgrown” the intended structure and called on lawmakers to change how public funds are spent. Nowak said in many cases providers who received previous funding for wireless service are now coming back for help installing fiber optic cable.
“We’ve gone past the low-hanging fruit,” she said. “I feel like we’re shoveling in a snowstorm.”
Evers sought $200 million for broadband expansion in his last budget proposal, though Republicans in the Legislature instead approved borrowing $125 million.
Evers initially planned to award $100 million this year but decided to award the full amount after the PSC received nearly 200 applications seeking some $495 million in public funding.
Valcq said because the grants are funded through bonding there were “administrative efficiencies” to awarding them all at once.
The state will have about $4 million available for grants next year through the Universal Service Fund, a 30-year-old program to ensure access to essential telecommunications service.
The PSC has estimated it would cost between $740 million and $1.4 billion to bring what the Federal Communications Commission considers high-speed internet service (25/3 Mbps) to all residents.
Broadband experts say the market has served most of the densely populated areas where there’s a good return on investment. But in many rural areas there aren’t enough customers to cover the cost of installing cable or building wireless towers.
According to a 2021 report from the Federal Communications Commission, nearly 395,000 Wisconsin residents lack access, though private studies have estimated the actual number could be higher than 600,000.