Agenda to encourage broadband expansion in rural Wisconsin is more talk than action

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Since the administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin has spent millions of dollars trying to expand high-speed internet access to the hardest-to-reach parts of the state. A 2020 report found that 430,000 people, or 25% of the state’s rural population, lack access to high-speed internet.

One program, Broadband Forward, aims to prepare communities to accept Internet service providers and remove barriers to building towers and installing fiber optic cables. Yet after seven years of low turnout and hit-and-miss success, community leaders see it as just “a PR gimmick.”

In 2016, the bill creating the Broadband Forward program was introduced by Republicans and passed along party lines before being signed by Walker. The bill gave the state Public Service Commission (PSC) the ability to certify communities as “broadband-ready” if they pass an order declaring they have taken a certain number of measures to facilitate the expansion of Internet businesses in their region. The program also aims to help communities and providers access broadband expansion grants.

The PSC has created a model order outlining the steps required, including establishing an internet company point of contact and posting that person’s contact information online, allowing all documents to be filed electronically, and creating a process supplier application evaluation uniform.

The use of certification and ordinance which does not require much from local authorities once established may mean that there is not really much commitment. This may be compounded by the fact that in addition to ensuring that the order passed meets legal requirements, the PSC does no oversight of the program, according to PSC spokesperson Jerel Ballard.

“The PSC reviews the order at the time of certification application, but does not regularly conduct ongoing monitoring of program compliance,” he says.

As of 2016, of the state’s 1,850 municipalities and 72 counties, only 79 have passed the ordinance and joined the program. Less than half of them have since received a broadband expansion grant through the PSC, although that does not mean there has not been an increase in access to these areas because communities can access federal grants for broadband expansion or a service provider can decide to expand into a community without receiving state money.

This is the case of the village of Kronenwetter in the county of Marathon. Kronenwetter has been certified Broadband Forward since the program began in 2016, but has not received any broadband expansion grants. But village administrator Richard Downey says claimants have decided to expand into the village anyway.

“We haven’t had a lot of expressions from vendors that this has spurred them on,” he says. “We’ve had vendors come to us, they’ve grown pretty strongly in our community and they’ve done it.”

Now, as the village strives to connect the remaining parts of the community, he says he thinks certification can help convince vendors it’s worth it.

“In the next phases, as we look at small pockets of the community, I think the broadband transfer designation will help us advertise to providers to say, we have this and have more citizens in these areas. that we would like to serve,” he says. .

Some community leaders say the program could be more successful if it helped regions get priority access to grants. Communities are asked if they are certified on grant applications, but registration is not one of the priority factors for receiving PSC money, according to Ballard.

“Be broadband forward!” certified or offering to serve a Broadband Forward! certified community is not a legislated priority factor for broadband expansion grants,” Ballard said in an email response to questions from the Wisconsin Examiner. “This has no impact on grant scoring or merit ranking by the selection panel.”

“That said, the Commission has always asked grant applicants if they were certified as a Broadband Forward! community or if the app offers to serve a Broadband Forward! Community,” he continues. “This is largely for informational purposes, as the Broadband Forward program is voluntary and is not required to receive a grant from the Commission. The final award of grants is a decision of the Commission and an individual commissioner may choose a variety of factors when making the final decision.

Even in communities that have managed to access state money for broadband, officials aren’t sure certification has been particularly helpful. In Iowa County, which received a grant of more than $730,000 in 2020 and whose individual municipalities received their own funding, County Administrator Larry Bierke says he’s heard from service providers who don’t have don’t feel like it’s an added benefit.

“It may have helped get broadband providers‘ attention initially, but you don’t get extra points for having that designation,” he says. “I asked this question to LightSpeed, they felt that it had no impact at all. I liked the idea, but it really needs to be linked to a benefit for new communities to jump on, otherwise it’s just a matter of PR. It provides a positive opportunity for interaction when you do the ribbon cutting and the big announcement and can tell ISPs that you are rolling out the red carpet and welcoming them into the community.

“It’s a feel-good effort at this point,” he adds.

Ironically, Steve Schneider, the founder and CEO of Bug Tussel, a broadband company focused on delivering internet to rural Wisconsin, points to Iowa County as an example of how Broadband Forward certification works – although he says it’s mostly beneficial as a sign that community leaders are engaged and committed to expanding internet access.

“I don’t know if the program is as important as the concept of community engagement and community support,” says Schneider. “So I think Broadband Forward is one way to gauge if there’s community support, but it’s not the only way. “

“We have had very positive results with certified Broadband Forward communities. Iowa County would be a good example,” he continues. “What usually happens, if someone takes the time and effort to follow the Broadband Forward program, it means that leaders are thinking about broadband and realizing that they need it for economic development and quality of life, as well as for remote health and remote agriculture. If they did, they talked about the fact that they need zoning and rights of way, all those things that are a requirement. On the other hand, we have dealt with some counties that probably have never heard of Broadband Forward but have a broadband committee. Their constituents demand it. “It’s crazy that in Taylor County we don’t have broadband, how can we get you here, get things done faster?” Even if they are not Broadband Forward Certified, the same end result happens because they are motivated.

In some communities, however, certification does not mean ongoing commitment. In the Clark County town of Thorp, which is certified Broadband Forward but has never received a PSC broadband grant, a local official knew nothing about the program when the Wisconsin Examiner interviewed him.

The PSC is currently reviewing applications for another round of broadband expansion grants. Broadband Forward certified communities have collectively requested more than $75 million. Statewide, grant applications have requested nearly $500 million to fund broadband projects.

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