The Badger Project
The Newcomer household near Monroe is fairly typical for rural Wisconsin. It is surrounded by cornfields. The nearest neighbor is a quarter-mile down the road. And the internet service is spotty at best.
Now the coronavirus shutdown has put serious stress on the family. With the internet so poor, the he teenagers struggle to do their homework while school is closed.
Their mother, Traci Newcomer, 41, teaches nursing at the nearby Blackhawk Technical College campus in Janesville, and classes have now moved online. Because their internet service is so slow and undependable, she cannot teleconference at home. Newcomer must drive 10 minutes to the parking lot of the college’s Monroe Campus to use the Wi-Fi there.
“Today I put the computer on my passenger side seat and turned sideways and conducted my class that way,” she said, prompting chuckles from her students before she got down to business.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of the ways in which poor internet service can make rural residents less productive and more isolated than their urban counterparts.
Already, Wisconsin lags behind the country in broadband coverage. An estimated 43% of Wisconsin’s rural residents lack access to high-speed internet, only slight up from 31% of rural residents nationwide, according to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.
“We have such a long ways to go,” said state Sen. Jeff Smith, a Democrat who has tried unsuccessfully to increase the state’s investment in broadband. He added the crisis has highlighted how “we shouldn’t have dragged our feet for so long, and now we’d better get serious about it.”
State investment low
Through programs like the FCC’s Connect America Fund, the federal government has granted about $1 billion since 2015 to help service providers build and maintain voice and internet infrastructure in Wisconsin.
Some of that service is not yet online; providers have up to six years to offer broadband. And the policy requires an outdated speed of only 10 megabits a second for downloading, although an FCC spokesman said nearly all of the projects will offer the federal definition of broadband, 25 megabits per second to download, and 3 mbps to upload.
Between 2013 and 2019, the state of Wisconsin provided $20 million in grants to private and public entities and cooperatives to provide high-speed internet in unserved and underserved areas. In 2020, funding greatly expanded to $24 million in broadband expansion grants.
But critics say even the new budgeted amounts are rain drops in an empty pool compared with what is needed to achieve significant coverage across the state. And the grant rules do not set speed requirements in a rapidly accelerating digital landscape.
The federal minimum is “pretty meager,” said Anita T. Gallucci, a Madison-based attorney who advises municipalities on telecommunications. The needed speed, not to mention what will be required in the future, is “way beyond that,” she said.
Telecommunications companies have relatively little difficulty providing broadband to urban places, because cities and towns are densely populated. For-profit businesses make the initial, and often heavy, infrastructure investment, because they have a lot of customers.
But the cost of burying miles of fiber optic cables — one of the fastest and most reliable ways to deliver the internet — can be prohibitive. Rural residents instead might need to rely on less-dependable forms of internet delivery by satellite or wireless. And those can be affected by weather, trees and topography.
Other state governments have stepped in more forcefully. About 16% of rural residents in Minnesota lack access to high-speed internet — about one-third as many as in Wisconsin. That is in large part because Wisconsin’s western neighbor has invested heavily in rural broadband.
From 2014 to 2019, Minnesota spent about $108 million to expand high-speed internet, according to Eric Lightner, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. That is more than five times what Wisconsin spent during a comparable period.
The politics of providing internet
In 2011, the administration of then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, actually returned $23 million in federal stimulus money intended for broadband expansion to schools, libraries and government agencies. Administration officials said the grant requirements were too strict. Walker declined to comment through a spokesman.
Last year, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, proposed adding nearly $75 million to the Broadband Expansion Grant Program in his 2019-20 budget. The powerful Joint Committee on Finance, which writes the budget and is controlled by Republicans who have majorities in the Legislature, scaled that back to $44 million.
“There’s never enough money to do what you need to do,” said state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, a joint finance vice chairman who has worked on the rural broadband issue. “We’re not going to get the problem solved as fast as everybody would like, but at least we’re working towards that outcome.”
This session, the finance committee rejected two Evers proposals. One would have raised minimum speeds required for providers to receive state grants. The other would have set a statewide goal of achieving internet speeds that match or surpass the federal definition of broadband by 2025.
Smith has introduced several bills to improve service, including investing more in broadband grants. But the Republican majority ignored those bills.
The effort to improve access did get a boost, however. Wisconsin will end a tax on telephone companies installing internet infrastructure after a bill introduced by state Rep. Romaine Quinn, R-Barron, was signed into law in March. Companies that began as internet companies do not have to pay the tax. But Gallucci said the tax change amounts to “small potatoes.”
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators including Wisconsin’s Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin introduced a $2 billion bill to compensate small broadband providers for offering free or discounted rates to low-income families during the pandemic.
Government steps in
If private companies will not provide the service, municipalities can build their own systems. But that can be more than some officials want.
The city of Madison released a plan in 2018 to build a citywide, high-speed fiber internet network but shelved it when it learned it could cost more than $173 million.
Reedsburg’s utility, owned by the city but operated independently, built and maintains its own fiber network. The city delivers rapid 1,000 mbps download and upload speeds for between $45 and $50 a month.
In 22 years of providing internet service, the Reedsburg utility has made enough money to pay its bills and turn enough of a profit to grow its system, said Brett Schuppner, the general manager of the Reedsburg Utility Commission.
“We’re not-for-profit,” he said, “but we’re also not-to-lose-money too.”
The city of Superior announced in February that it is also considering building its own broadband infrastructure, but one on which private companies would be able to provide the service and compete against each other.
Bringing Wisconsin up to par
There are ways Wisconsin could catch up. Wisconsin could invest more heavily where private companies are reluctant to go.
Smith also argues for a speed requirement when doling out state grants. Minnesota requires grant recipients to deliver speeds of at least the federal minimum.
While Wisconsin does not have a speed requirement in awarding grants for private companies to build broadband, speed is a factor when the Public Service Commission considers which proposals will receive state money, said Matthew Sweeney, a spokesman for the commission.
Olsen said a cheaper alternative to buried fiber optic cable would be to deliver internet by white space, the extra capacity in TV broadcast bands. But such service is much slower than fiber networks. The FCC last year adopted a series of changes to make it easier to use TV white space to provide internet service in rural areas.
Gail Huycke is a community development specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Huycke, who focuses on broadband access, lives in Phillips in the northern part of the state. Her internet runs slowly, about 8 to 10 megabits per second.
Huycke said government should invest in what will be needed in the future, not the minimum requirements. She cited a quote from hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, who said his father told him to skate where the puck is going, not where it has been.
“We need to think about broadband,” Huycke said, “like Wayne Gretzky.”
Peter Cameron is managing editor of The Badger Project, a nonpartisan journalism nonprofit based in Madison. He reported this story under the direction of Wisconsin Watch Managing Editor Dee J. Hall.