An ultra-fast broadband tower on a farm in rural New Zealand. (Sandra Mu | Getty Images)
Since the administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin has spent millions of dollars trying to expand broadband internet access to the hardest to reach parts of the state. A 2020 report found that 430,000 people, making up 25% of the state’s rural population, lack access to high-speed internet.
One program, Broadband Forward, aims to get communities ready to accept internet service providers and clear obstacles to getting towers built and fiber cables installed — yet after seven years of low participation and hit-or-miss success, community leaders see it as just a “PR thing.”
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’s Public Service Commission (PSC) the ability to certify communities as “broadband ready” if they pass an ordinance stating they’ve made a number of steps to make it easier for internet companies to expand into their area. The program is also meant to help the communities and providers access broadband expansion grants.
The PSC created a model ordinance outlining the steps required, including establishing a point of contact for internet companies and publishing that person’s contact information online, allowing all documents to be filed electronically and creating a uniform process for assessing providers’ applications.
The pass-it-and-forget-it use of the certification and the ordinance that doesn’t demand that much from local officials once instituted can mean there isn’t actually much engagement. This can be compounded by the fact that beyond making sure the passed ordinance complies with the requirements of the law, the PSC doesn’t do any oversight of the program, according to PSC spokesperson Jerel Ballard.
“The PSC reviews the ordinance at the time of the application for Certification but does not regularly do any ongoing oversight of program compliance,” he says.
Since 2016, of the state’s 1,850 municipalities and 72 counties, just 79 have passed the ordinance and joined the program. Less than half of them have since received a broadband expansion grant through the PSC, though this doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any increase in access to these areas as communities can access federal grant money for broadband expansion or a service provider can decide to expand into a community without getting any state money.
That’s the case for the Village of Kronenwetter in Marathon County. Kronenwetter has been certified as Broadband Forward since the program began in 2016, yet hasn’t received any broadband expansion grants. But Village Administrator Richard Downey says providers have decided to expand into the village anyway.
“We haven’t had a lot of expression from providers that it’s been an impetus for them to move forward,” he says. “We’ve had providers come to us, they’ve expanded into our community pretty heavily and just did it.”
Now, as the village works to connect the last parts of the community, he says he thinks the certification may help convince providers it’s worth it.
“In the next phases, as we look at little pockets of the community, I think the broadband forward designation will help us advertise to providers to say, we have this and have more citizens in these areas we’d like serviced,” he says.
Some community leaders say the program may be more successful if it helped areas get priority in accessing grant funding. Communities are asked if they’re certified on grant applications, but enrollment is not one of the priority factors in receiving money from the PSC, according to Ballard.
“Being Broadband Forward! certified or proposing to serve a Broadband Forward! certified community is not a statutorily defined priority factor for the Broadband Expansion Grants,” Ballard says in an email response to questions from the Wisconsin Examiner. “It does not have any impact on the scoring of grants or the merit ranking by the screening panel.”
“Having said that, the Commission has historically asked grant applicants if they are certified as a Broadband Forward! community or if the application proposes to serve a Broadband Forward! Community,” he continues. “This is largely for informational purposes as the Broadband Forward program is voluntary and not required to receive a grant from the Commission. The final awarding of the grants is the decision of the Commission and an individual Commissioner may choose a variety of factors when making the final decision.”
Even in the communities that have been successful in accessing the state broadband money, officials aren’t sure the certification has been especially helpful. In Iowa County, which received a grant of more than $730,000 in 2020 and has had its individual municipalities receive their own grant funding, County Administrator Larry Bierke says he’s heard from service providers who don’t feel like it’s that much of an added benefit.
“It may have helped initially to generate the attention from broadband providers but you don’t get extra points for having that designation,” he says. “I asked that very question of LightSpeed, they didn’t feel it had any impact at all anymore. I liked the idea, but it really needs to be tied to some benefit for new communities to jump on, otherwise it’s just a PR thing. It provides a positive opportunity for interaction when you do the ribbon cutting and the big announcement and can tell internet providers you’re laying out the red carpet and welcoming them to 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 providing internet to rural Wisconsin, points to Iowa County as an example of Broadband Forward certification working — though he says it’s mostly beneficial as a sign that community leaders are engaged and determined to expand internet access.
“I don’t know that the program is as significant as the concept of community engagement and community support,” Schneider says. “So I think Broadband Forward is one way of gauging whether there’s community support, but it’s not the only way. “
“We’ve had very positive results with communities that are certified as Broadband Forward. Iowa County would be a good example,” he continues. “What typically happens, if somebody takes the time and effort to go through the Broadband Forward program, it means the leadership is thinking about broadband and realize they need it for economic development and quality of life and for remote health and remote agriculture. If they’ve done that they’ve talked about the fact that they need zoning and rights of way, all those things that are a requirement. On the other hand, we’ve dealt with some counties who have probably never heard of Broadband Forward but have a broadband committee. Their constituents are demanding it of them. ‘This is crazy that in Taylor County we don’t have broadband, how can we get you here, make things move faster?’ Even though they’re not Broadband Forward certified, the same end result occurs because they’re motivated.”
In some communities however, certification doesn’t mean continued engagement. In the City of Thorp, in Clark County, which is Broadband Forward certified but has never received a PSC broadband grant, a local official didn’t know anything about the program when asked by the Wisconsin Examiner.
The PSC is currently reviewing applications for yet another round of broadband expansion grants. Communities certified as Broadband Forward have collectively applied for more than $75 million. Across the state, grant applications have requested nearly $500 million to fund broadband projects.
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