More help might be on the way for those in Wisconsin with snaillike internet.

After a tough 2020 in which many students endured remote learning and adults had to work from home, Gov. Tony Evers declared 2021 “The Year of Broadband Access” in his State of the State speech earlier this month. He proposed $200 million in state grants for the expansion of high-speed internet and aid for poor residents to pay for it.

In the nation’s capital, Congress squeezed $3.2 billion into the huge December pandemic relief bill to help more people get high-speed internet.

Evers’ proposal would be a significant increase in state spending for broadband. He is essentially asking the legislature, which writes the budget, to give $150 million to private companies, cooperatives and municipalities to provide high-speed internet to residents who don’t already have it.

The governor also proposed $40 million for helping low-income residents pay for broadband.

At least one prominent Republican legislator seemed open to the spending, but expressed concerns about the source of those funds. Still in the grips of the pandemic, the state of Wisconsin is facing a nearly $400 million funding gap in the upcoming two-year budget. Unlike the federal government, the state government can not run a budget deficit. 

In 2021, a need, not a luxury

High-speed internet access is an especially serious problem for rural communities in the state.

The federal government defines broadband as 25 megabits per second of download speed and 3 mbps of upload speed, a standard that rapidly developing technology is overtaking, experts say.

Wisconsin’s Broadband Expansion Grant program lacks a minimum speed requirement, but the  Public Service Commission, which funds projects in a competitive format, gives preference to applicants who pledge to deliver important features such as covering unserved areas, providing higher speeds, making their own financial investment and offering scalable projects, PSC spokesman Jerel Ballard said.

Some critics say the state needs to do more. 

“Wisconsin must recognize that subsidized networks have to be accountable to the communities they serve and (the state) should only give money to networks that use technologies that will stand the test of time,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, a Minnesota-based think tank that helps communities with their telecommunications.

State Sen. Howard Marklein, a Republican from Spring Green

Mitchell estimated that current needs are at 100 mbps download by 20 mbps upload. In a few years, that need will jump to 200 mbps by 100 mbps, he said. 

“Not everyone needs that,” he added, “but many residents and most businesses do.” 

Using the federal standard of 25 mbps by 3 mbps, the FCC estimates that about 22% of rural Wisconsinites and about 15% of tribal lands in Wisconsin lack access to fixed broadband, according to a report released earlier this month.

But many experts blast the quality of the FCC’s maps and data on who has broadband access, saying they underestimate the problem. One study from last year suggested that 42 million people, double the FCC estimate, lack access.

Republicans hold the purse strings

The Democratic governor’s budget proposal must go to the powerful Joint Finance Committee, which, like both houses in the legislature, is Republican controlled..

It’s unclear what the GOP will do.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos left out any reference to broadband in his response to the governor’s State of the State.

In Ever’s first budget as governor in 2019, the Republican-led legislature set aside $48 million for broadband expansion grants. Evers had requested about $75 million.

State Sen. Howard Marklein, a Republican who represents a mostly rural district in the southwestern part of the state and serves as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, said in an email he was “very interested in the governor’s ideas on broadband expansion.”

Marlein called rural broadband “one of his top priorities,” but questioned where the $200 million would come from.

“This is an important part of the discussion,” he said.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Saukville who also sits on the Joint Finance Committee, did not directly answer when asked by email if he supports the governor’s broadband funding proposals.

But Stroebel spokesman Brian Sikma said in the email that the senator “looks forward to reviewing all aspects of Gov. Evers’ budget proposal when it is released.”

“Additionally, the Senator is eager to work with his Joint Finance Committee colleagues in crafting a state budget that is fiscally prudent and meets the needs of the citizens and state of Wisconsin,” Sikma wrote.

The pandemic has altered the politics of broadband access, giving it a new sense of urgency, said Anthony Chergosky, assistant professor of political science at UW-La Crosse.

“I suspect there will be bipartisan agreement on the general idea of increased investment in broadband, though there may be disagreements on the specific dollar amounts and allocations of resources,” he said. “In other words, I do think there is a deal to be made here.”

Hesitant to spend

Fiscal constraints could complicate bipartisan motivation to reach that deal.

COVID-19 has led to the most challenging budget scenario to face a Wisconsin governor and legislature in a decade. A report from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum places the pandemic-related budget hole at nearly $400 million. 

Anthony Chergosky, assistant professor of political science at UW-La Crosse

Before Evers was elected governor in 2019, the Republican-controlled state government did relatively little to help broadband expansion in areas private internet companies avoided.

From 2014-2019, the state budgeted about $20 million in grants for broadband expansion, an amount experts say is equal to throwing a pebble in a pothole. Over a similar time, Minnesota shelled out more than $108 million in broadband expansion grants, and providers had to match those grants with another $146 million, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Wisconsin does not require matching funds, but the state takes private funding pledges into consideration when awarding grants, and winning service providers kicked in about $33 million from 2014-2019, according to the PSC. 

Bottom line: Minnesota spent about five times what Wisconsin did to expand broadband, and now far fewer residents lack access. 

The FCC report says nearly all Minnesota residents have access to 25 mbps by 3 mbps and only about 9 percent of rural residents do not. In Wisconsin, 22 percent of rural residents lack access to 25mbps by 3 mbps, according to the report.

At the same time, state and local taxes in Wisconsin continue to drop. The tax burden in the state remains at its lowest level in 50 years, according to a report this month from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Wisconsin is making progress on irrigating its broadband deserts.

In March of 2020, the state awarded $24 million to fund 72 grants that extended high-speed broadband internet access to more than 3,000 businesses and more than 46,000 homes, according to the PSC.

Federal help also may be on the way, but it is unclear how soon. Congress set aside $300 billion for rural broadband grants in the December pandemic relief bill. It also included a program that would provide families a $50 monthly broadband subsidy, but that is still in the planning stages and is seeking public input, said Anne Veigle, an FCC spokeswoman.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

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