Wisconsin regulators have awarded $5.3 million in federal pandemic relief money to fund expansion of high-speed internet service in a dozen counties — provided those projects are completed this year.
The Public Service Commission voted 2-1 Thursday to approve funding for 12 projects passed over in the last round of state funding.
Gov. Tony Evers late last month directed that a portion of the roughly $2 billion awarded to Wisconsin through the CARES Act be used to expand broadband access.
The CARES Act restricts relief funding to costs incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30 due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. The U.S. Treasury advised that could include expansion of broadband service to support distance learning, telehealth and working from home.
The projects — primarily “fixed wireless” internet — are expected to make service available to approximately 11,500 homes and businesses in rural areas that include parts of Dane, Dodge, Jefferson and Rock counties.
Commissioner Ellen Nowak voted against the funding, saying it was not the best use of funds that could be used to buy personal protective equipment for health care workers or provide energy assistance for people struggling to pay their utility bills.
“I feel for the people who are struggling with distance learning and telehealth, but we are hoping this works here,” Nowak said. “Our obligation is not to hand out tax dollars and hope it works.”
Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq said projects that are not completed will not receive funding.
“We are not just willy-nilly letting dollars go out the door,” Valcq said.
But Nowak said that risks leaving federal dollars on the table.
PSC spokesman Matt Sweeney said the agency will file weekly reports with the Department of Administration, which can redirect any unused funds.
Charter Communications objected to funding four of the projects, which it argued would amount to subsidizing competition “in areas where existing providers such as Charter Spectrum are working diligently to continue providing quality high-speed broadband service despite the additional economic and market impacts of the pandemic.”
Commissioner Tyler Huebner rejected that argument, noting the pandemic has strained existing networks.
“If you went to work you didn’t need broadband from 8 to 5,” Huebner said. “Now you’ve got three or four simultaneous meetings.”
The 13 projects approved Thursday were among 71 denied funding in March when the PSC awarded $24 million in state broadband expansion grants. The agency is accepting applications now for another $24 million that will be available next year through the state budget.
Commissioners have acknowledged an unmet demand in a state where more than half a million people do not have access to high-speed internet, defined as download speeds of at least 25Mbps.
Wisconsin lags the national average, with roughly 8.7% of the state’s population lacking broadband access, according to the Federal Communications Commission. The problem is most acute in rural areas, where about 28% of the population lack service.