Will the federal government help Wisconsin get better broadband? 

HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - One of the new ultra fast broadband towers is seen on a rural farm in Eureka in Hamilton, New Zealand. Vodafone and the New Zealand Government switched on the first wave of newly built cell sites under the Rural Broadband Initiative (Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images)
HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - A new, ultra fast broadband tower seen on a rural farm in Hamilton, New Zealand. Vodafone and the New Zealand Government switched on the first wave of newly built cell sites under the Rural Broadband Initiative (Photo by Sandra Mu/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Tammy Baldwin called on Congress Wednesday to narrow disparities in access to broadband internet service. 

“The COVID-19 crisis has laid bare the reality of how needed it is,” the Wisconsin Democrat said during a hearing held by the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). 

She and several other senators participated remotely via broadband internet connections. 

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson — a Republican member of the committee — did not attend.

Internet use has shot up during the pandemic, as Americans use it to work and learn remotely, access health care, connect with government services, buy groceries and participate in civic and social life. Wisconsinites have also used it to participate in elections by ordering absentee ballots and uploading photo identification, Baldwin noted.

“We have a new day with regard to the amount of use and reliance on broadband, high speed broadband in particular,” she said.

But millions of Americans lack access to quality high-speed internet service, and many more could lose it if they are unable to pay broadband bills because of lost income or jobs. The problem is especially dire in rural areas, underserved communities and tribal lands.

Wisconsin is home to 11 federally recognized tribes, and a sizable portion of the state’s population — 30% — live in rural areas, according to 2010 census data.

The state ranks 30th in the nation when it comes to internet coverage, speed and price, according to a report by BroadbandNow Research. Overall, about 83% of Wisconsinites have access to land-based broadband coverage. 

But coverage varies widely across counties, dropping to 39% in Price County and 42% in Taylor County in the northern part of the state.

In March, President Donald Trump signed legislation to improve FCC broadband maps as well as a $2 trillion package that included funding for rural broadband deployment. 

Addressing the ‘digital divide’

But Baldwin and others say more needs to be done to address the “digital divide.” 

On Tuesday, House Democrats unveiled a $3 trillion coronavirus response package that includes $4 billion to help low-income families pay internet service bills and $1.5 billion to support distance learning. It also takes steps to support communications among first responders, incarcerated populations and people experiencing mental health crises.

The sweeping legislation met swift resistance from Senate Republicans, who said in a press conference Tuesday that it had virtually no chance of passage. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called instead for “narrowly targeted” legislation that addresses specific problems related to the pandemic.

On Tuesday, Johnson retweeted a comment by the Senate Republican Conference that accused Democrats of using the legislation to “take advantage of a crisis.”

Baldwin and others, meanwhile, continue to press for shoring up the nation’s broadband infrastructure in the short and long term.

On Wednesday, she and other senators introduced a $4 billion bill to help students obtain internet-enabled devices and access the internet during the pandemic.

The bill would help address the “homework gap,” in which some students can participate in remote learning but others cannot because they lack quality internet access, she said in a statement. The gap affects students in both rural and urban areas and disproportionately affects low-income students and students of color, she noted.

Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan has signed on to a House version that would allocate $2 billion to the effort — the amount educators believed would be needed through the end of the current academic year but not beyond.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, pushed for a bill she introduced in March that would create a federal fund to support small broadband providers that provide free or discounted broadband services or upgrades to low-income families. 

Baldwin and more than two dozen other senators from both parties have signed on to the bill, and Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Ron Kind has signed on to a House version.

“The last thing we want to do in rural areas right now is to cut off service,” Klobuchar said.

The bill would essentially extend the spirit of a pledge many communications companies have made during the pandemic to continue to provide broadband service, according to Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of an association of rural broadband providers.

Under the pledge, companies have promised to temporarily avoid service disruptions, waive late fees and open up hotspots to all Americans. Some have also lifted data caps, offering free or discounted services and taking other steps to support continued access.

But they can’t continue to do so indefinitely without support, Bloomfield said. “Think about it as essential services,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to continue to support the network.” 

Klobuchar also said she wants to enhance internet access for older people — a vulnerable and especially isolated population. And she called attention to underutilization of the FCC’s “lifeline” program, which gives low-income subscribers discounts on telephone service, internet access or bundled services. “That’s something that we want to continue to focus on,” she said.

Baldwin, meanwhile, raised the issue of boosting upload speeds as two-way communication increases during the pandemic and mapping student access to broadband internet service.