Wisconsin utility regulators have awarded $24 million in grants to help bring high-speed internet service to underserved communities.
The grants — which will support 72 projects by 44 companies, municipal and tribal governments — more than double the amount of money the state has awarded over the past seven years for broadband expansion.
The funding was authorized in the two-year budget passed in 2019, which included another $24 million in grants for 2021.
According to the grant requests, the projects will extend high-speed internet to as many as 3,182 businesses and 46,537 homes, most of which do not currently have service available.
The largest single grant, $2.25 million, went to US Internet, which intends to extend fiber-optic service to 2,620 locations in Winnebago County. CenturyLink received $1.67 million for projects in La Crosse and Vilas counties and an upgrade for the Tomah VA Medical Center.
The Public Service Commission selected the projects from more than 143 applications requesting a total of more than $50 million.
Commissioners acknowledged there is still 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 25 megabits per second (Mbps).
“By the sheer number of applications we received, we’ve still got a long ways to go,” said PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq.
According to a 2019 report by the Federal Communications Commission, broadband deployment in Wisconsin lags the national average. About 8.7% of the population lacks access, compared with 6.5% nationally. In rural communities, which account for the bulk of underserved areas, nearly 28% of residents lack access to service from at least one provider.
Upgrading or bypassing older telephone lines to provide broadband service is expensive.
It’s cost-effective to build in cities where there are lots of customers situated close together. But in many rural areas, providers have decided there aren’t enough customers to pay for the upgrades, according to a report from the PSC’s broadband office.
Prior to Thursday’s action, the PSC had awarded 138 broadband expansion grants for a total of $20.1 million.
Commissioners expressed frustration with the lack of information about what services are actually available at any particular address.
“In the beginning it was easy to know where there wasn’t coverage,” said Commissioner Ellen Nowak. “I want to spend these resources exactly where they need to be done. This has a whole lot more art than science.”
Valcq said economic growth is hindered when businesses can’t make informed decisions about where to locate.
“This is exactly what happens when you chip away at regulations,” Valcq said. “We have no ability to force them to give us granular data.”
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