Capitol Update

by Senator Howard Marklein

February 18, 2022

Better Broadband Policy

Bill improves program to send funds where they are needed most. 

My bill to send precious rural broadband expansion grant funds to the communities where they are needed most, Senate Bill (SB) 365, passed the State Senate Tuesday, February 15, 2022. This bill modernizes the Rural Broadband Expansion Grant program to direct state investments to communities without broadband, prioritize investments in higher speeds and projects with 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.
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. In the past, grants have been made to communities that already had one decent provider while communities in our Senate District are left with nothing. This is not acceptable.
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 Federal Communications Commission (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.  The average family of four needs at least 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up to participate in basic online activities like Zoom meetings, online school or telemedicine; and even at this speed, they will likely see delays. ‘Good enough’ service is not good enough and we should change our standards to reflect that.
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 is willing to invest in a project, the state should give priority to a project where the locals are invested in the project. We have communities and telecommunications companies that are willing to heavily invest in rural broadband and we should recognize this commitment.
Finally, this bill creates a challenge process for an ISP in or near a project area to challenge the project grant 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.
More than $2.8 billion has been dedicated to broadband expansion in Wisconsin since 2014. A lot of these funds are still in process as telecommunications companies gear up for the next construction season this spring. We must respect the plans that are in place and the companies that are heavily investing in infrastructure so that we get the most bang for our buck.

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. 
I am optimistic that the Assembly and the Governor will approve this effort and work with us to make sure our investments in rural broadband are reaching the people who need it. Every session, we have taken meaningful steps to dial-in and focus our work on rural broadband expansion. This bill is one more step in this process. We have made tremendous progress and we’ll continue to evolve until every consumer is connected.
As always, please do not hesitate to connect with me to provide input, ideas or to seek assistance.  Send an email to sen.marklein@legis.wisconsin.gov or call 608-266-0703.