Wisconsin Gov. Dedicates $100M in Federal Money to Broadband

Yesterday, Gov. Tony Evers announced a plan to use $100 million in federal funds for broadband grants throughout Wisconsin. Grant applicants would be required to provide a download speed of 100 Mbps.

Rural broadband Internet
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(TNS) — Gov. Tony Evers on Tuesday announced plans to use $100 million in federal stimulus funds to provide broadband expansion grants in the state.

The high-speed Internet grants are in addition to the nearly $200 million in broadband expansion Evers has proposed in his 2021-23 biennial budget, which is now in the hands of the GOP-led budget committee.

As governor, Evers has full discretion over the federal funds. The Democratic governor announced earlier this year plans to spend $200 million in stimulus funds on infrastructure, with a large portion of that going toward expanding broadband access. However, that was before the state was informed last week it would receive $700 million less in federal COVID-19 dollars than was originally projected, which could impact Evers' use of those dollars.

"Between our Badger Bounceback agenda investments and these federal funds, we're taking a major step toward connecting everyone in our state," Evers said in a statement. "I'm glad to be able to direct this funding to the (state Public Service Commission) so the folks in need of high-speed Internet can get connected as quickly as possible."

Evers also urged Republican lawmakers to approve nearly $200 million in broadband expansion funding proposed in his budget.

"This isn't a question of providing federal or state funding for broadband — we must do both to ensure folks can get connected," the governor said.

The broadband grants would be awarded through the state's Public Service Commission, with eligible projects expected to serve unserved or underserved households and businesses and provide Internet services that meet or exceed 100 Mbps download and upload speeds. If such a speed is not practicable due to geography or excessive costs, projects would need to provide a minimum of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds.

Applications to the grant program will be made available June 1 and are due July 27. Additional details on the grants are expected to be available early next month.

"We are committed to getting the funding awarded quickly and efficiently while continuing to be good stewards of public dollars," PSC chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq said in a statement.

Budget committee co-chair Sen. Howard Marklein, R- Spring Green, said Tuesday Evers' budget proposal is being discussed by committee members. He added that there would likely be a need for both federal and state grant programs to expand broadband in the state.

Earlier this year, Evers vetoed a Republican-authored bill that would have allocated $500 million in one-time federal stimulus funds to broadband expansion in the state.

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored Wisconsin's shortcomings in high-speed Internet access as more residents were forced into online classes and work-from-home settings.

It would cost between $740 million and $1.4 billion to bring 25/3 Mbps Internet speeds — the FCC's definition of broadband — to the estimated 400,000 residents of the state who lack it, or roughly $1,850 to $3,500 per person, according to cost estimates updated this year by the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.

When factoring in long-term costs for not only broadband expansion, but also maintenance expenses and programs to ensure the service remains affordable for everyone, officials have estimated the total cost of full connectivity to be in the billions.

One major caveat with the state's broadband cost estimate is that FCC data on Internet coverage use Census blocks, which can significantly understate the level of underserved homes and communities. If one home in a Census block has high-speed Internet, the entire block is considered served.

The PSC has awarded $73.6 million in broadband grants over the past eight years. Almost three quarters of that was given out during the current two-year budget cycle.

©2021 The Wisconsin State Journal, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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