Wisconsin officials have launched an “emergency internet” tool to help people find free broadband service during the coronavirus health emergency.
The tool, available at maps.psc.wi.gov/apps/PublicWiFiLocations, is accessible by smartphone and points users to nearly 450 identified open Wi-Fi connections, many of which are in schools, libraries or other public buildings that are physically closed.
It was developed by the Public Service Commission’s State Broadband Office and the Department of Public Instruction, which said many students lack access at a time when schools are relying on the internet to deliver lessons.
“Equitable access to broadband internet is crucial for children to succeed in education,” said Carolyn Stanford Taylor, state superintendent of public instruction. “The digital divide is even more apparent during this health emergency.”
The map includes network names and passwords, if required, as well as details on signal strength, range and the best place to connect.
The agencies say they will continue surveying service providers, school districts and libraries and update the map as new sites are discovered. The PSC says users should stay in their vehicles and only use the free Wi-Fi long enough to access critical services.
About 8.7% of all Wisconsin residents — and more than 28% of those in rural areas — do not have access to broadband service, according to a 2019 report by the Federal Communications Commission.
Last month the PSC approved $24 million in grants to help bring high-speed internet service to underserved communities.
Gov. Tony Evers has asked the Legislature to spend another $20 million on broadband expansion as part of a package of bills in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The funding was not included in a bill passed Tuesday by the Assembly.