Grants aim to improve broadband access in rural areas
Written by Liz Welter, Central Wisconsin Sunday
The partisan rancor among state legislators disappears when it comes to supporting expansion of broadband access to rural areas throughout the state. This includes pockets of central Wisconsin and large parts of the northern and northwestern sections of the state.
How to fund the expansion is where the bipartisanship ends.
The recently approved 2013-15 state biennial budget includes transferring $4.3 million to the Public Service Commission to allocate up to $500,000 annually for grants that address expansion of broadband services.
Broadband is a high speed internet connection capable of handling large amounts of data, which replaces slower dial-up services.
“Businesses and families in the northern areas of Wisconsin deserve the same availability to broadband service that those in urban areas receive,” said state Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford.
Expanding broadband is a process that will take time, he said.
“This isn’t going to happen quickly,” said Suder, who added there isn’t one solution for service to all communities.
The PSC will administer the funding through grants to areas with the most significant need, he said.
“Broadband is key to be competitive in the global economy,” Suder said, adding the service is an important component for economic growth and business expansion.
While the current budget provision is a good start, it’s not enough to address the issues, said Rep. Katrina Shankland, D-Stevens Point.
“Now, 23 percent of state residents don’t have (broadband) access,” she said.
The lack of broadband hinders growth and development of business and stymies people’s ability to advance their education, Shankland said.
“It’s a good start, but I’d like to see more money dedicated to this,” she said.
Wisconsin ranks 22nd among states for average broadband speed and ranks 26th in adoption of broadband faster than 4 megabytes per second, according to figures from Akami Technologies, a firm that tracks global broadband trends.
Spending $500,000 annually is a paltry sum when compared to the need, said state Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, who added the state turned down a $23 million federal grant aimed at delivering broadband to more schools and libraries in 2011.