A Dane County task force tasked with working to improve local broadband internet access takes stock of available COVID-19 emergency funds it could tap into.
The county’s broadband task force began meeting in July, with the aim of presenting a list of recommendations to county council for action in 2022.
The 15 members of the working group include representatives from a wide variety of backgrounds: education, health care, municipal administration, economic development and agriculture, the elderly, young people, public works, Internet service providers and citizens in general. The Dane County Executive Office will have a seat, as will the Dane County Association of Towns and the Dane County Association of Towns and Villages. And UW Extension staff are helping guide the effort.
In a virtual meeting on August 5, the task force tentatively discussed how it could spend $ 5 million in federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act through Dane County and intended for the expansion of broadband Internet. This is in addition to ARPA funds paid separately to municipalities and the $ 100 million in broadband expansion grants that the Wisconsin Civil Service Commission is expected to announce next month.
Jaron McCallum, of the Wisconsin Broadband Office of the Public Service Commission, said the PSC recently received about 240 grant applications asking for more than $ 400 million. He said the office was “really excited” by the number of applicants.
“It’s definitely a lot of app reading for our team. We have funding opportunities available and we expect more to come in the future, so I would say stay tuned, ”McCallum said.
In addition to briefly touching on funding, McCallum and two colleagues spoke about internet-related data compiled by the Wisconsin Broadband Office and its efforts to turn that information into maps that help better understand state residents and policymakers. .
Commission officials are expected to return to a Dane County Broadband Task Force meeting in September to share more.
The American Rescue Plan Act was enacted by the US Congress in March. Among other things, it lists broadband infrastructure improvements as a place where recipients, including counties and municipalities, can use these funds.
The US Treasury Department is expected to release more details by the end of the summer on how the funds can and cannot be used, said David Gault, an attorney in the Dane County Legal Office.
The money must be spent by December 31, 2024.
“There’s a lot of stealth there, some really broad categories, some benchmarks,” Gould said. “Other than that, the federal government has left a lot of latitude to local governments in deciding how to spend these funds.”
“At the end of the day, the county board has pretty broad discretion as to how it allocates these funds within those parameters,” Gould said.
Committee members then discussed the possibility of leveraging the county’s $ 5 million in funding, potentially creating public-private partnerships with private internet service providers.
The committee also assessed the use of funds to subsidize tariffs to keep the Internet affordable for users and to provide resources such as coaching on the use of Internet platforms such as Zoom, rather than spending them on. infrastructure improvements such as “mid-mile” infrastructure that connects technology spanning individual domestic and commercial sites to larger regional, state and national networks.
Gould warned that ARPA funds appeared to be earmarked for infrastructure improvements, but said additional guidance expected from the U.S. Treasury Department should clarify this.
Committee member Peter Weill said the group will need to consider what is realistically possible to accomplish for the amount of money available.
“What does $ 5 million bring us?” In the end, is it just a drop in the bucket? Said Weil.
“To me that doesn’t sound like a lot of money,” said committee member Bill Dickmeyer. “We’re not going to be able to fix everything. My question for the group is: are we focusing on one thing or on several things? “
Committee member Joyce Tikalksy said the goal may ultimately be to fund a mix of projects with short and long term impacts.