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Wisconsin Broadband Funding Proposal Prompts Call for Ideas

Gov. Tony Evers is proposing an additional $78 million for state broadband expansion in his 2019-2021 budget. But exactly which projects will benefit is an ongoing conversation.

(TNS) — With an additional $78 million put aside for broadband expansion in Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers' 2019-2021 proposed budget, members of his administration are trying to come up with ideas for how to carry out that plan.

As a part of the administration’s post budget tour around the state, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary designee Brad Pfaff stopped in Reedsburg March 4 at Reedsburg Utility Commission to discuss with staff members and city officials in hopes of bringing some ideas to the state.

“Figure out what could be the most effective model for parts of the state that don’t have Internet access,” Barnes said.

The meeting also provided an opportunity for municipal officials to ask questions and address concerns about broadband expansion in the proposed budget.

In addition to the extra money, Evers announced Feb. 28 in his budget address the goal is to create a statutory statewide broadband speed of 25 megabits per second download and three megabits upload speed for all homes and businesses by 2025.

Evers said the proposed dollar amount is over four times the amount invested during the last proposed state budget. Barnes said the additional funding hopes to connect additional communities to Internet access through funding from the PSC.

Staff members from the utility and city officials shared with how it first started investing in fiber optic Internet 20 years ago as a way to communicate with the wells and lift stations. It expanded to provide Internet services to its residents and continued to innovate, eventually providing one gigabyte fiber optic Internet access in 2014.

Last May, the Reedsburg Utility Commission re-branded its telecom services as LightSpeed to tout its unthrottled access to the gigabit fiber network. It is only telecom provider in the state that provides a minimum of one gigabyte service and the third in the nation, said Reedsburg Utility Commission General Manager Brett Schuppner.

Reedsburg Utility Communications Supervisor Ken Las said the utility continues to expand its Internet access. In October 2018, Reedsburg Utility Commission received $440,000 in grants for broadband expansion through a partnership with the town of Spring Green. Through that grant, it also expanded broadband service into the town of Delton.

The utility also shared challenges in obtaining funding for federal and state grants for broadband expansion. Las said one of the “speed bumps” was figuring out how to obtain public/private partnerships, one of the requirements in applying for a PSC grant. Part of the proposed budget also “reduces requirements that make it difficult for municipalities to directly invest in broadband infrastructure for communities,” according to a press release from Barnes office.

“We need to make sure municipalities do have that flexibility in creating those public/private partnerships where needed to create the access,” Barnes said in a separate interview.

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