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Wisconsin Bill Could Direct ARPA Funds to Broadband Grants

Under a recently proposed Wisconsin bill, lawmakers are considering the use of federal relief funds to create a grant program aimed at expanding the state's wireless broadband and cellular service.

Shutterstock/Alena Mozhjer
To connect unserved and underserved areas of Wisconsin, state lawmakers have proposed a bill to allow the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) to award grants to qualifying providers to build out wireless broadband and cellular infrastructure throughout the state.

According to the language of the bill, grant recipients would need to contribute matching funds equal to at least 20 percent of the grant and disclose the properties they serve to the PSC twice a year.

The governor would also be required to allocate $70 million from funds accepted under the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for grants and provide an additional $5 million of ARPA funds for broadband mapping.

This includes establishing and maintaining a publicly accessible map of broadband service availability in the state.

As for the overall interest in the bill, Rep. David Steffen, R-Green Bay, pointed to the wireless broadband options that could be deployed with ARPA funds.

The first area of interest, Steffen said, is “the federal government and the state government has had an almost singular focus on hard wiring for the purpose of broadband, and while perhaps that’s been the premiere and front runner as it relates to broadband, it is not the only option that’s available.”

The second area of interest is using ARPA funds available to the state to incorporate broadband delivery.

“I firmly believe it’s a great opportunity to incorporate the broadband delivery portfolio by making broadband part of the solution,” he said. “Beyond that, one of the things that provide a unique opportunity with the bill is that in order to be eligible for the grant funds an enhanced mobile service is required.”

This enhanced standard will supply wireless telephone communications over 9,000 miles of state and federal highways in Wisconsin.

One of the main reason’s for the new mobile standard is to ensure public safety.

For example, Steffen said, “it is quite possible that someone could be in their home watching Judge Judy in 4G and then step outside to the barn or work in the field and can’t even connect to call 911.”

The same goes for driving through rural areas and not being able to make any calls.

However, despite the different applications of the bill, one of the challenges in passing the legislation might be convincing the governor to use federal funds to support it.

“I would say one of the biggest challenges is having the governor agree that this is something of high enough value to use those funds,” Steffen said. “This is a situation where I am asking him to consider the safety of the traveling public and the possibility of offering wireless broadband to the people of Wisconsin.”

If the bill moves forward, the next step would be working with the PSC to start the broadband expansion process.

“They’ll be the point of contact for the grants program,” Steffen said. “They’ll be the ones who will be overseeing most of the activity that relates to this, and they are the natural point of contact for the delivery of this type of program.”

The PSC briefly commented on the legislation via email, saying only, “The PSC is aware of the bill and is monitoring it as it goes through the state’s legislative process.”
Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.