Time to Invest in Rural Broadband Access
By State Senator Julie Lassa
Broadband internet access has become an indispensable resource for business and a vital part of our society. Such technologies as cloud-based computing, high-definition audio and video streaming, web conferencing, and mobile web access are all designed around internet speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (MBPS) – and even that’s considered a slow connection speed nowadays. The latest 4G data services start at a minimum of 100 MBPS, and the gold standard is “gigabit” service of 1,000 MBPS. I know it’s a highly technical topic, but it’s important to know that today’s innovative businesses and research institutions need this kind of broadband access to thrive.
Unfortunately, much of Wisconsin lacks access to high-speed broadband. According to the Federal Communications Commission and industry group data, 20 percent of Wisconsin’s population is currently underserved. The average broadband connection in Wisconsin is 23.8 MBPS – far slower than 4G speeds. As you might guess, rural areas of the state are especially starved for broadband access. For example, more than a third of Jackson County residents lack even minimal broadband coverage, as do more than half the people in Adams and Waushara counties.
And, until recently, gigabit access has been virtually absent in all of the counties of the 24th Senate district. This past spring, Lemonweir Telecom announced plans to bring gigabit service to the business parks in Sparta and Tomah. We need more of that kind of investment to keep our local businesses competitive and growing.
As the Senate Committee on Economic Development, of which I am ranking member, held a series of listening sessions around the state this past fall, we heard from business leaders in many rural communities that greater access to broadband is crucial to enable them to attract both new businesses and skilled employees. Making a real investment in expanding broadband in rural areas would be one of the most important ways we can promote job creation in Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, the efforts of Governor Walker and the Republican majority in the State Legislature have been notably lacking in this regard. One of the Governor’s first acts back in 2012 was to turn away nearly $23 million in grant funding that would have allowed the state to expand fiber optic broadband networks to 82 schools and 385 library facilities. We lost 150 full-time jobs that could have been created by this project. The most recent state budget contains only $6 million spread over four years for broadband deployment. And as part of their recent jobs package, Senate Republicans are touting a bill that adds no new funding and just allows the $6 million to be spent right away.
The weakness of these efforts is especially apparent when compared to what our neighbors in Minnesota are doing. According to the publication Government Technology, the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development has already managed $30 million in broadband investment in that state since it launched in January, 2014. The legislature there recently approved a $10 million annual investment in broadband expansion, and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has proposed investing $100 million of the state’s nearly $2 billion budget surplus in bringing broadband to rural communities. This program has the potential of bringing high-speed Internet access to tens of thousands of rural homes and businesses.
I introduced an amendment to the Republican bill that would have upped Wisconsin’s investment in rural broadband to $10 million annually – the same level that Minnesota is investing now. If Wisconsin is going to become economically competitive with its neighboring states, we have to commit to making a meaningful investment in our broadband infrastructure, the digital highway that carries the promise of economic growth and higher paying jobs both today and in the future.