Broadband Expansion Grant Program Modernization Bill Passes State Senate

Marklein's bill improves program to send funds where they are needed most.

MADISON – Senate Bill (SB) 365, authored by State Senator Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), passed the State Senate today. This bill modernizes the Rural Broadband Expansion Grant program to direct state investments to communities without broadband, prioritize investments in higher speeds and matching funds and prevent wasteful overbuild of federally-funded projects.
“Wisconsin has made tremendous progress in rural broadband expansion since we first started this grant program in 2014. I am very proud of our state’s investments. In order to continue our progress, each session we have fine-tuned the grant program to ensure that we are continuing to make smart investments and to reach communities that are not connected. This bill is one more step to modernize our approach and focus our efforts to reach communities that do not have broadband,” Marklein said.
SB 365 as amended eliminates the “underserved” category and redefines “unserved”.  Under current law, underserved is defined as areas that are served by fewer than two broadband providers. This means that a location could have one provider with fast speeds and still qualify for state assistance.
“SB 365 eliminates this category so that we are only investing in communities that actually need our funding,” Marklein said.
The bill also redefines “unserved” to be areas that are not served by an internet service provider (ISP), of any type that provides actual speeds of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. Current law defines unserved as areas that do not have a provider that provides service of at least 20% of the FCC standard. Right now, that means anyone who isn’t at 20% of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.
“This complicated speed standard is incredibly slow and does not work for most consumers.  This low standard also holds back some communities from receiving grants to improve service because it looks like they are served, but they are not. ‘Good enough’ service is not good enough,” Marklein said.
In addition, this bill prioritizes fiber projects, but does not prohibit fixed wireless, DSL or cellular projects. In order to meet consumer expectations, the bill says that if a project is going to put fiber into a location where another project is offering a fixed wireless solution, the fiber should be prioritized.
It also prioritizes projects that bring at least 50% matching funds.
“If a community and telecommunications provider are willing to invest in a project, the state should give priority to a project where the locals are invested in the project,” Marklein said.
Finally, this bill creates a challenge process for an ISP in or near a project area to challenge the project application if they currently – or will be providing – the same or higher speeds in the same location no later than 24 months after the date that the grants are made.  This is meant to prevent state investment in projects that are already receiving significant federal funding.

“We must continue to fine-tune and target Wisconsin’s investments in rural broadband to reach the communities who are still waiting to be connected. Our small, local telecommunications companies, as well as larger providers throughout the state, are working hard to reach customers and we must support this work so that our people will be connected efficiently and effectively, as soon as possible,” Marklein said.