November 9, 2022

With Broadband, Strong Connections Build Strong Communities

It’s truly amazing the technological strides we’ve made in the past century. Many communities in western Wisconsin were among the last in the state to be hooked up with home electric service in the 1930s. The miles of infrastructure needed to reach these homes was significant, and considered not profitable by electric companies at the time.

Today we have similar issues with broadband. Technology is advancing at a rapid pace, and Wisconsin must stay competitive. Access to fast, affordable broadband is critical for parents to work, kids to keep up on their schooling and businesses to thrive. Broadband must be treated as a public utility, like electricity, water and gas.

The first issue we’ve faced is knowing where to build the infrastructure. The lack of precise data showing where we need broadband construction muddies the issue. We can’t expand broadband to the areas that need it most if we don’t know who has service and the speed they receive.

Wisconsin initially used broadband surveys produced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to determine levels of coverage. The FCC’s broadband surveys are broken down into census blocks. For their purposes, a census block is considered covered with broadband if even just one house in the block could have broadband.

In cities, a census block can be as small as a couple city blocks, but rural census blocks can span for miles. This produces a map that shows where broadband might be, rather than where broadband is, therefore grossly overestimating the coverage in rural areas.

In response to the FCC’s flawed maps, Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission gathered its own data. According to that data, the estimated number of Wisconsinites lacking internet grew substantially, from 400,000 to 650,000. With the right data, we will not only know where to expand broadband throughout the state, but we will be able to lay out infrastructure more efficiently.

Public-private partnerships are working to leverage investments for attracting broadband development in our rural areas. This works only in some areas though. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must balance the cost of connecting outlying homes and businesses with the amount of customers willing to pay for service. ISPs generally look for at least a 50% “take rate”, the percentage of residents willing to sign up for service, in order to consider it profitable to install broadband infrastructure.

No matter what we do to persuade private companies to develop broadband infrastructure in our rural communities, companies still determine which homes are worth connecting by focusing on profitability. Public investment can remedy this. Instead of using taxpayer-funded grants on projects that make private companies more profitable, we should be using those funds in the most hard-to-reach areas. That’s the whole point of public investment.

Fiber optics are the way to go, providing fast and reliable internet service that can keep up with the pace of modern life. In the past, I’ve sponsored “dig once” legislation. This bill allows local governments to require empty conduit lines be installed in the right-of-way during highway and road construction. After the conduit has been installed, ISPs may easily add fiber optics without digging up the right of way a second time. This concept provides an efficient way to slash the cost of running fiber optics by 90%.

Here in SD 31, the Town of Cross in Buffalo County is a shining example of what can happen when neighbors come together to develop broadband infrastructure in their community. Residents surveyed their neighbors to determine need, and then approached the town board with their findings. This year, the Public Service Commission awarded Town of Cross $2.1 million in State Broadband Expansion Grant funds. When completed, the service is estimated to provide fast broadband service to 229 addresses.

As we invest more resources into broadband expansion, we need to take a hard look at where that money is going. The public deserves input on how and where we add broadband service. We’re not quite past the finish line yet, but if we empower our communities as we did with rural electrification, I’m confident that we can get all of Wisconsin connected.