Wisconsin officials push to boost broadband access

Posted April 12, 2021

Broadband internet connectivity in Wisconsin is improving, though the state still has a portion of the population that is underserved.

Data collected by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) show that about 6.8% of Wisconsin residents lack access to broadband, with most of these people living in rural areas. This is higher than the national average of 4.4%.

Broadband is obtained through one of several high-speed transmission technologies. These can be through digital subscriber lines (DSL), a cable modem, fiber optic technology, and the two wireless options of satellite and wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi), according to the FCC. Through these transmission technologies, people can access high speed internet.

Gov. Tony Evers has proposed investing $200 million of the 2021-2023 biennial budget into expanding broadband infrastructure. Evers declared 2021 the year of broadband and said high-speed internet accessibility and affordability are the best ways to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Certainly, there’s the whole issue of making sure we have shots in people’s arms and we’re working like a son of a gun on all those issues and we’re making great headway,” Evers said. “But at the end of the day if we want to come out of this pandemic, not just where we were but move our state forward, we need to have people connected to each other and connected to their markets.”

Jaren McCallum is the state broadband director for the Public Service Commission (PSC) of Wisconsin. His role at the PSC is to further broadband access, affordability and other related issues. McCallum said this can be challenging because broadband and telecommunications are fairly deregulated in Wisconsin, which leads to situations where internet service providers can choose where to serve based on business cases and return on investment.

“Where there may be lower population density, or in particular challenging terrain or geography,” McCallum continued, “those are areas of the state since the business case isn’t there to expand that infrastructure like fiber, towers, cable what have you, that’s kind of the situation why there are unserved individuals. A lot of it is based on the lack of business cases.”

McCallum said things are improving, since broadband has been receiving more funding from the state and federal government. The PSC also offers a grant program that has been in existence since 2014. Eligible entities can apply for funding in certain parts of the state.

District 30 State Rep. Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls) represents parts of Pierce and St. Croix counties. Zimmerman started out as a businessman and is the founder of a language translation technology company called Sajan that he sold in 2017. He currently is part of a start-up in the tech sector in a similar industry. He also runs a vineyard and winery with his wife. He said good broadband connectivity has been crucial to the success of his businesses.

“On the language translation technology front, we had offices in seven countries and people all over the world,” said Zimmerman. “Literally just broadband in certain parts of the world and in the U.S. would limit our ability to sometimes hire great talent because they needed to be connected at what I’ll call business class speeds, and they weren’t. So that was a little frustrating at times. I view broadband as a huge and strategic need right now in the state.”

Zimmerman also uses broadband at the winery. He said they had tried both DSL and satellite transmission options but have switched to fiber optics.

“We tried every option, and it was all awful and we would lose transactions, so having that reliability is wonderful on the retail side of that business,” said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman said investments in broadband not only increase business capabilities, but the values of homes, rural teaching services, and many other benefits. Zimmerman serves on the state’s Joint Finance Committee, and he said the committee will continue to lobby for increased investment into high-speed internet access from the state.