Looking forward to expanded rural broadband

By: Cambridge News & Deerfield Independent News Staff, Cambridge News & Deerfield Independent 

For anyone in our rural area, but especially business owners trying to communicate, access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet is critical.

Unfortunately, there are still remote pockets in our area where broadband service isn’t available or remains spotty.

New state legislation introduced Jan. 27 is the latest effort to remedy that.

We hope its aims come to fruition.

The “Better Broadband,” legislation, LRB 4877, was introduced by State Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point) and other Democratic legislators.

According to a release, it would invest $100 million to expand broadband service and to improve mapping accuracy, to help the state Public Service Commission best allocate state expansion grant funds. Farms would be a priority.

Wisconsin created a state broadband expansion program in 2013 to help meet demand for improved broadband. Since then, according to state figures, the PSC has awarded about $20 million in broadband grants. The PSC expects to award up to $24 million in grants in 2020.

Grant awards since 2013 have funded the laying of fiber optic cable, cell tower construction, and other work statewide.

“It’s past time for rural broadband expansion to be taken seriously after years of lagging behind other states, and I am proud to stand with my colleagues in introducing this much-needed legislation today,” Shankland said in a release. “I frequently hear from folks in rural communities about how important a reliable internet connection is to doing business, and these bills will be transformational for many families across Wisconsin.”

Under the bill, retail electric utilities and cooperatives would be required “to survey customers and members about broadband service availability,” and the PSC would have to reimburse the utilities and cooperatives for conducting the surveys. Internet service providers would also have to disclose to the PSC the properties they serve and the average minimum download and upload speeds at which they provide residential and business service to those properties. The PSC would have to use the survey results and information disclosed to improve broadband mapping.

There’s plenty of documentation to show that rural parts of the United States have lagged behind their urban and suburban counterparts in access to reliable internet service.

That includes a 2018 study by Congressional Democrats, “Investing in America: Bringing Progress and Opportunity to Rural Communities,” that showed only about one-third of rural residents don’t have access to high-speed internet.

We look forward to the day when that’s in the past.