Wisconsin Governor Launches Statewide Broadband Initiative

During the press conference, demonstrators derided it as "feel-good bill."

by Mike Tighe, La Crosse Tribune, Wis. / July 7, 2016
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker Flickr/Michael Vadon

(TNS) — VIROQUA — Gov. Scott Walker and about 50 demonstrators played an impromptu game of hide-and-seek when the Republican governor stopped in Viroqua for a press conference where he officially launched the state’s Broadband Forward Community Certification Program.

Many of the participants toting anti-Walker signs in front of Vernon Communications Cooperative Technology Center ran around to the back of the building when Walker’s Wisconsin State Patrol escort dropped him off there.

“Back door Walker,” they chanted in frustration over the governor’s relatively below-the-radar visit. After they returned to the front sidewalk and noisily coaxed honks of support from drivers on Main Street, a Vernon official asked them to move away from the front, so they grouped again at the back hoping to intercept Walker, whose caravan left quickly.

Walker created the Broadband Expansion Grant Program with $500,000 in allocations in the 2011-13 biennial budget. Last year, the Republican-controlled Legislature tripled funding for the grants to $1.5 million annually for four years.

The tripling is intended to advance broadband Internet access and speed to meet needs for decades to come, Walker said, noting that it is necessary not only to enhance Wisconsin’s quality of life, economic development to compete in the global economy, education but also aid in tourism.

“As much as people say they want to get away (from Internet connections), still at the end of the day, they want to check in or watch Netflix,” as well as have the ability to work from home, he said.

The goal is to have rapid broadband accessible throughout the state instead of lagging in some rural areas and smaller towns, he said.

Asked whether broadband accessibility might have improved more quickly if he had not decided in 2012 to forego $23 million in federal grant money that would have expanded broadband networks to dozens of schools and hundreds of libraries, Walker said he would have to review the record on that question.

The certification program is intended to streamline the application process for broadband access because few communities and companies were applying under the previous legislation, said Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Madison, co-sponsor of the new law who also spoke at the press conference.

Telecommunications companies and communities must partner to advance broadband, Marklein said.

State Rep. Lee Nerison, R-Westby, whose 96th Assembly District includes Vernon and Crawford counties and part of Monroe County and who attended the press conference as an observer, saluted the legislation.

“I’ve got constituents who still are on dial-up,” because of the southwest Wisconsin terrain of hills and valleys.

“I’m glad to see it finally coming,” said Nerison, adding that he has been involved in efforts to expand broadband since he was elected to the Legislature in 2005, when Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle was in office.

Despite the increased emphasis, the Badger State’s broadband initiatives have faced criticism in some quarters, including among demonstrators Monday, as paling in comparison with Minnesota’s.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has budgeted $20 million to improve broadband in the Gopher State, and he advocates spending another $100 million from the state’s surplus.

Attending the press conference was Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse. She also welcomed Broadband Forward’s certification measures.

“It streamlines the application process so communities will know how and where to apply,” Shilling said.

However, the measure “is not nearly enough” to meet Wisconsin residents’ needs, she said.

Legislators have been talking for five to six years about making internet access fast enough, and more user-friendly, to serve not only individuals but also schools, health care facilities, economic development and tourism, Shilling said.

She told of working with firefighters in Seneca to help fill out paperwork at a highway department office.

“They only had dial-up,” she said. “Nobody in this day and age should have dial-up.”

Many would-be internet users are trapped in what Shilling described as “the last mile,” being a stone’s throw from broadband but too far out to be connected.

“Vernon Communications Cooperative has done a very good job” of being a leader in the quest to obtain access, speed and connectivity, said Shilling, whose 32nd District includes La Crosse, Vernon and Crawford counties, and part of Monroe County.

Some businesses have resisted broadband improvements, but “Vernon saw the need,” she said.

Shilling said she suspected the demonstrators were upset about Walker’s string of private listening sessions throughout the state, a suspicion that participants confirmed.

George Wilbur, vice chairman of the Vernon County Democratic Party, said a tipster notified party members about Walker’s press conference, prompting them to organize a protest of not only the private sessions but also Walker’s performance in general.

“We’re fed up with the governor destroying the Wisconsin we used to know,” Wilbur said, citing restraints on education, voting rights and water and the environment, among other issues.

“This (Broadband Forward!) bill is to cover up for the fact that he isn’t doing anything,” he said. “This is a feel-good bill.”

©2016 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.