David Thiel doesn’t have to look far to see the effects of poor access to broadband in his county. As the pandemic took hold last spring and forced schools statewide to close, families in rural and less densely populated areas faced added hardship.
Not long after schools closed, Thiel, who serves as executive director of the Waupaca County Economic Development Corp., received a call for help from Clintonville Public School District Superintendent David Dyb.
“They literally had families driving into the school’s parking lot to pick up homework for their kids,” Thiel says.
Rural school districts statewide have been struggling during a time when students and families are increasingly relying on technology to connect with teachers and complete schoolwork, Thiel says.
WCEDC is addressing the broadband issue in a couple of ways. The state recently added construction of broadband towers to serve low- to moderate-income residents to its list of projects eligible for funds from the Community Development Block Grant-CLOSE program.
Thiel hopes to use those funds to construct broadband towers. The City of Waupaca could use its ISP partner, Waupaca Online, to offer service to lower income individuals. In addition, WCEDC has |applied for a grant through the state’s Broadband Expansion Grant program.
Access to reliable and affordable broadband has long been an issue for certain parts of the state, but the pandemic created an even more urgent need to address the problem. More than ever before, the internet has become a needed conduit for homeschooling, telemedicine and remote work.
“People live all over, and we have very rural parts of our region. Companies are telling us it’s been challenging for them to connect,” says Barb LaMue, president and CEO of New North, Inc. “The need has always been there, but the times that we’re living through, it’s been obviously heightened.”
Virtual meetings and online learning will continue even after society finds its way to a new normal, LaMue says. Beyond that, telehealth is becoming increasingly important, especially in rural areas that may have less access to routine or specialist care. Reliable coverage also is important for business attraction and tourism.
For its part, New North. has submitted a grant to the federal Economic Development Administration. The grant would allow New North to bring in personnel from the telecommunications industry to identify connectivity gaps and provide recommendations for addressing those.
The broadband maps that exist right now are inaccurate, LaMue says. To determine coverage in areas, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin looks at census tracts. If one person has access to affordable broadband in an area, everyone in that tract is noted as having it, leading to a less-than-accurate picture.
Mary Kohrell, community economic development director for Calumet County, says that’s the case in her county, where a map might show an area is served but people who live there say service is inadequate.
She’s also concerned about the quality and reliability of internet access within High Cliff State Park and Calumet County Park.
“Long story short, there are still plenty of service gaps in this county as well as in much of Northeast Wisconsin,” Kohrell says.
LaMue says the New North project would give each county a blueprint that could help it more effectively engage with telecom providers and allow them to look at incentives needed to entice companies to invest in less-populated areas where the business case to do so is weaker. In addition, it will better position communities to go after implementation grants for laying fiber or erecting towers.
“Our region is going to be ready to say, we know exactly what we need and this is what it’s going to take to get it done,” she says.
State grants can help
Jaron McCallum, state broadband director for the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, says the Federal Communications Commission completes annual broadband reports and estimates about 7.1 percent of the population, or 410,000 individuals, lacks access to broadband with speeds of 25 megabytes per second download and 3Mbps upload, compared to the national average of 5.6.
McCallum says those estimates are probably on the low end and that many of those 410,000 individuals live in rural areas. Beyond that, affordability is an issue in both rural and urban areas, he says.
Several barriers stand in the way of deploying affordable broadband, but McCallum points first and foremost to deregulation of the telecommunications industry and internet service providers in the state. Laying fiber and putting up towers also is costly and time consuming, and the time to recoup costs can be long if a company is investing in a less densely populated area, he says.
“It doesn’t make business sense for companies to go ahead and do that without some sort of outside assistance,” McCallum says.
To help communities become better connected, the PSC has housed and administered the Broadband Expansion Grant program since 2013. The first couple of rounds of the funding were just $500,000, and that figure has increased to $24 million for the most recent rounds.
The grant program is aimed at comm-unities, ISPs and other eligible entities working to deploy broadband infrastructure to areas of the state where the business case might be there. Many of the successful grant applicants are public-private partnerships, such as an ISP partnering with a municipality, McCallum says.
Winning a grant is competitive, and most rounds bring more applicants than funds available. The committee selecting recipients looks at several factors including matching funds available to help leverage state dollars, public-private partnerships, the current level of service in the proposed project area, impact, scalability, potential economic development effects and the impact the project might have on adjacent areas.
“We really encourage applicants to tell us their story and add some color to the project. Why would this be so meaningful to the community?” McCallum says.
This year, in addition to funds already allocated to the grant program, the state provided an additional $5 million for broadband expansion through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The additional dollars are to be used for shovel-ready broadband projects. Unsuccessful applicants from previous rounds of grant funding that have projects that have already been vetted and determined eligible are encouraged to apply. It’s aimed at getting customers connected by Dec. 30.
McCallum says the PSC grants are just one part of getting communities better connected to broadband. Federal funding opportunities and private company investment also are vital. “It’s really kind of an all-hands-on-deck approach, and the state program is just one piece of the puzzle,” he says.