In his proposed 2021-23 budget, Gov. Tony Evers included a massive increase in funding for the state’s broadband expansion program — one of the few Evers initiatives that enjoys bipartisan support.
Evers proposal includes spending more than $150 million over two years on grants to help municipalities work with internet service providers to expand access. The budget also includes money to collect better, granular data on which parts of the state are unserved or underserved and a program to help broadband lines being extended to single houses that remain without access. Evers has also proposed making it easier for municipalities to build their own internet infrastructure in cases where it’s been difficult to attract ISPs.
Aside from small nitpicking over not wanting to duplicate efforts already underway by the federal government, the plan to expand broadband in Evers’ so-called “year of broadband,” cleared its first hurdle Wednesday when the Public Service Commission (PSC) char Rebecca Valcq testified to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
The broadband expansion grant program has seen consistent funding increases and Evers’ last budget included $48 million for broadband projects. But, Valcq said the costs will only increase as the state works to cover the hardest to reach corners of the state — estimating it will take $700 million to bring internet to every residence and business.
“What we’re starting to see right now is when you’re looking to build infrastructure in the hardest to reach places, the capital costs increase,” Valcq said. “It’s getting harder and harder to reach the people who need it the most.”
Even with the high price tag, both parties seem to be in agreement over the realities of the issue and the challenges to total internet access.
“I can’t stress this enough, for the Main Streets of rural Wisconsin, high speed internet is becoming a life or death issue,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) said.
In her opening statement, Valcq highlighted the rural communities — some represented by the Republicans on the committee — that need better internet access. Later in the hearing she listed all the ways better internet can help residents learn, work and stay healthy.
“This has been a wildly successful program but the funding has been gradually ramping up,” Valcq said. “As the funding has been ramping up and we hear from more and more village presidents, town managers, farmers, senior citizens, educators, we grow more and more aware of the importance of the infrastructure. At the end of the day this is economic development, telemedicine, trying to curb social isolation for senior citizens. It’s a costly endeavor but it’s critically important.”
The Evers proposals have so much bipartisan agreement that some Republican suggestions for improvement were already in the budget. Sen. Mary Felzkowkski (R-Irma) said the PSC should provide some support for smaller municipalities trying to apply for broadband expansion grants because they have small staffs and can’t employ a grant writer.
The Evers budget already includes $300,000 to help communities build their broadband plans and create a team within the Department of Administration to provide municipal leadership with technical assistance.
The only potential sticking point in one of the most bipartisan aspects of the budget is the money Wisconsin is set to receive from the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP). The recently signed legislation includes money that states can use to improve broadband access. Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) started off the hearing by questioning whether the $150 million was necessary if the state will be able to spend federal money on the issue.
Valcq countered by saying the money from the federal government and Evers’ budget is necessary to solve the problem.
“It’s a both/and, not an either/or,” she said. “What I want to caution against is putting all of our eggs in that federal basket.”