The Wisconsin Public Service Commission has awarded $28.4 million in state funds to help bring high-speed internet service to underserved communities.
The grants, which will support projects in 39 counties, were the second round to be funded by $48 million included in the 2019 state budget. The PSC voted to award an additional $4.4 million left over from previous years.
The study finds the problem may be worse than we thought, with implications for health, education and prosperity -- problems that are further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has pushed nearly every aspect of daily life online.
According to the grant requests, the 58 projects will extend high-speed internet to as many as 6,159 businesses and 106,000 homes, most of which do not currently have service available.
The largest single grant, $2.2 million, went to CenturyLink for a project in the Vilas County town of Boulder Junction.
Also funded were two projects that will serve about 300 homes and businesses in the Dane County towns of Bristol and Cottage Grove.
The PSC selected the projects from 124 applications requesting a total of more than $62.6 million.
The commission has awarded $73.6 million in broadband grants over the past eight years. Almost three quarters of that was given out during the current two-year budget cycle.
That includes $5.4 million of the state’s roughly $2 billion in federal pandemic relief funds that were given late last year to a dozen projects that brought service to more than 20,000 homes and businesses.
Gov. Tony Evers has proposed allocating another $200 million for broadband support in the next two-year budget, though the chair of his broadband task force says providing universal access could cost billions of dollars.
According to a 2019 FCC report, about half a million Wisconsin residents lack access to 25/3 Mbps internet speeds — a level of service that can’t always stand up to the demands of remote work and school. And the FCC data overstate the availability of service.
Broadband experts say the market has served most of the densely populated areas where there’s a good return on investment. But in rural areas — especially the rugged Driftless area and remote North Woods — there just aren’t enough customers to cover the cost of installing cable or building wireless towers.