Dane County, Wisc., Addresses Digital Divide With Task Force

A unanimous vote from the Dane County Board has established a local broadband task force, which will, among other tasks, identify Internet gaps in the county and assist municipalities with state and federal grants.

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(TNS) — When Sup. Kate McGinnity was knocking on doors in rural southeastern Dane County for her campaign about a year and a half ago, she said "the No. 1 issue" she heard from about 2,000 residents was that they had trouble accessing the Internet.

"We have huge pockets where there is no Internet," McGinnity said of the county.

McGinnity, who now represents the rural 37th District on the County Board, said the "digital divide" between rural and urban areas has become even more amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic as residents work remotely, students have had to learn digitally for much of the school year and many social interactions and entertainment options have been pushed online as people try to prevent the spread of the virus.

To address the accessibility gaps, the Dane County Board on Thursday voted unanimously to create a broadband task force that will explore how to expand the broadband infrastructure in the county to more rural areas.

According to a Federal Communications Commission map of broadband access in the U.S., 94 percent of rural Dane County homes have access to three or more broadband providers, and 6 percent have access to two or more providers.

But Sup. Melissa Ratcliff, 36th District, a co-sponsor of the resolution that created the task force, said those maps are outdated and inaccurate.

"Even though Dane County seems to have this great coverage, we know that there are areas in our county that don't have the coverage, that don't have the access at all," Ratcliff said.

Approximately 25 percent of Dane County's rural residents say they lack access to reliable, affordable broadband, according to the county.

One father told McGinnity his kindergarten daughter couldn't get online to do her homework because their Internet didn't have enough bandwidth. Another constituent told McGinnity of having to work from a car in a McDonald's parking lot to get Internet access during the pandemic.

"It's just ridiculous stories that we hear out here," McGinnity said. "(Internet) is as vital as water or electricity, and yet way too many people in Dane County don't have access to it."

The task force will gather data on where the broadband holes are in the county and then help towns and villages apply for federal or state grants to expand their broadband infrastructure, which consists of telephone lines and fiber-optic cables that connect people to the Internet.

McGinnity said the county can't apply for grants on behalf of local municipalities. But it can help guide them through the process, which can be complicated and time-intensive.

To even apply for funding, Ratcliff said, municipalities need accurate maps of their current broadband coverage, something that doesn't exist right now. They also need a broadband provider to partner with to provide the coverage.

Ratcliff said she's not sure what else might be required, which is part of what the task force will research. She said some of the towns and villages have so few staff that they don't have the capacity to pursue grants.

The county also wants the task force to hold public hearings for residents to discuss broadband challenges, make recommendations on what other actions the county can take to help expand the broadband network and find other potential solutions to the infrastructure gaps, such as using hot spots or satellite technology.

Members will include three County Board members, two at-large members, a person with an "economic and/or agricultural perspective" and one representative each from a health care provider in the county, a local school district, a town board, a broadband provider, a local youth organization and a senior facility, according to the resolution. One representative each from the Dane County Executive's Office, the Dane County Towns Association and the Dane County Cities and Villages Association will also be on the task force.

McGinnity said the ultimate goal is for 100 percent of residents to have access to broadband.

"We're not going to leave anybody out, I promise you that," she said.

The task force is expected to complete a report on its work within one year.

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