There isn’t enough state funding for Wisconsin communities to provide internet to more residents and businesses, according to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
Evers announced on Wednesday that there were 124 applications submitted to the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program, totaling $221.6 million in requests. But the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, the body administering the grants, is expected to award up to only $42 million.
“Clearly, the need far outweighs the resources available, and we must keep making meaningful state investments to prioritize and invest in the robust broadband infrastructure needed to meet our state’s 21st-century needs,” Evers said in a statement.
Wisconsin has long struggled to provide equitable internet access, and the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the gaps in access when students and workers were sent home and told to log in online for classes and work.
According to U.S. census data, nearly 14% of Wisconsin residents didn’t have an internet subscription between 2017 and 2021. Wisconsin is ranked 28th among states when it comes to internet coverage, speed and availability, according to the research group BroadbandNow.
There is less access to broadband in less-populated or geographically challenging parts of the state, according to a 2021 study by the University of Wisconsin Extension. The study shows large gaps in rural northern Wisconsin and the southwest Driftless Area, known for its hilly terrain.
It’s not a big surprise, then, that many of the grant applicants are located in these areas.
Nextlink Internet made the largest request, asking for more than $12.9 million to provide internet to residents and businesses in the town of Shullsburg, a community with a population of about 349 in southern Lafayette County. Its project is expected to provide internet to 304 residential locations and 284 businesses. The city of Superior, one of the state’s northernmost communities, with a population of about 26,751, made the second-largest request, for $10 million. The funds would help provide internet to 2,528 residential locations and 100 businesses.
“We know that continued investments are necessary to meet the clear, consistent demand for broadband infrastructure and help us connect more communities as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible,” Public Service Commission Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq said in a statement.
The state has set a goal for all homes and businesses to have reliable and affordable internet access by the end of this decade, and the infusion of more federal funding is expected to help the state reach it. This latest round of grants is being funded through the Capital Projects Fund with money from the American Rescue Plan Act.
Wisconsin also received $1 billion for broadband expansion from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan. That money hasn’t been allocated yet; the funding will be provided piecemeal, and the first round of funding is expected to be provided next summer.
In his last budget, Evers requested $750 million to expand broadband, but the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee rejected it, citing the federal funds coming in.
Although $42 million is a far cry from the dollar amount requested by internet providers and municipalities for next year, it would still be more than double the amount awarded in 2023, when 24 projects received a total of $16.6 million.
It would also be the second-largest amount awarded in the program’s history. In 2022, 71 projects received a combined total of $124.9 million in grants. When the grant program first launched in 2014, just seven projects received a combined total of $500,000.
The Public Service Commission will evaluate the grants based on affordability of service, project design and technology; applicant capacity to complete the work; and community engagement and support. The commission is expected to allocate the funding by next spring.