Note: This is a shorter version of a previously published article on sunprairiestar.com which mentioned the successful sale of its Internet utility by Sun Prairie to TDS Telecom.
If you live in rural Wisconsin, you know how bad internet service can be. According to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, more than 40 percent of rural residents lack access to high-speed Internet. Nationally, around 31% of rural households do not have access. Actual percentages may also be higher due to poor FCC mapping, experts say.
The Wisconsin government has done relatively little to help. From 2013 to 2019, while the Republicans were in total control of the government, the state funded a total of approximately $ 20 million in grants for broadband expansion.
That amount is negligible, experts say. Over a similar period of time, Minnesota has shelled out more than $ 108 million in grants for broadband expansion and providers have had to match those grants with another $ 146 million, said Eric Lightner, a spokesman for the Department for employment and economic development of Minnesota.
This is a total of $ 255 million for broadband expansion in Minnesota, more than 10 times the investment in Wisconsin.
Now, about 16 percent of rural Minnesota households don’t have high-speed Internet access, Lightner said. Compare that to 40% of rural Wisconsin households without it.
After becoming governor in 2019, Democrat Tony Evers proposed to increase funding to $ 75 million over two years for broadband expansion. The Republican-controlled legislature scaled it down to $ 44 million – still a big increase – but it also blocked many of the governor’s other attempts to accelerate expansion.
Some Republicans cringe at the high cost of installing fiber optic cable throughout rural Wisconsin, where there may be so few customers. Instead, some point to wireless options as a way forward. But wireless is slower than fiber and can be affected by weather, trees and topography.
Adding more urgency to the problem is the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many to work and study from home 100% of the time.
“This has become five times more important than before,” said Barry Orton, professor emeritus of telecommunications at UW-Madison, “and it was really important before.”
If you want a faster internet connection to your home as soon as possible, you can get involved. That’s how.
At the municipal level
The city you live in can build its own internet infrastructure and even provide the service.
That’s what happened in Reedsburg. While the federal government defines broadband as an Internet speed of 25 megabits per second of download speed and 3 megabits per second of upload speed, Reedsburg goes above and beyond.
The city entered the digital fray in the late 1990s, making the expensive investment to bury a network of fiber optic cables. Now his utility delivers Internet at lightning speed of one gigabit: 1,000 megabytes per second for download and 1,000 megabytes per second for upload.
The price is around $ 50 per month for a home. And the utility has been successful enough to continue expanding its system, according to Brett Schuppner, general manager of the utility.
The city of Waupaca, with a population of approximately 6,000, also provides the Internet to more than 300 corporate and residential accounts, said Joshua Werner, the city’s IT & Community Media Director.
The city offers unlimited wireless Internet, a familiar nuisance to many rural subscribers. The speeds provided by Waupaca are much slower than the gigabit service in Reedsburg, but faster than the slow DSL that private companies offer in the area.
But those communities are unusual in Wisconsin. Because they own the infrastructure and provide Internet service, they have to do everything a telecommunications company does: run a billing department, staff a customer service call center, send “news” to connect customers and solve problems. .
Many cities are understandably reluctant to take on this financial risk and additional work. If that’s the case you live in, your municipal government can do what Richland Center and Sun Prairie have done: build their own high-speed infrastructure and then sell it – at a profit – to a private company for management.
The municipal route does not always work, as the Municipality of Shawano can attest. As of 2007, the government built a large system that provided broadband Internet, telephone and cable TV services at a whopping $ 8.5 million. When the city tried to dump the system in 2013, the highest bid was $ 1.25 million, said Brian Knapp, general manager of Shawano Municipal Utilities.
But even if a municipality doesn’t get its money back, the investment can still pay off.
According to Kaye Matucheski, the city’s chief financial officer, Antigo has spent about $ 2.7 to build just a broadband network – no TV or phone – and will receive a total of $ 1.6 million from a local company that leases it before the transfer of ownership in 2030.
It looks like another losing proposition. Except the town of Antigo, which had a turtle – dial up – before it got involved, now has a cheetah – gigabit service.
Other municipal options
State law requires a Wisconsin city or town to complete a three-year feasibility study and hold a public hearing before building its Internet infrastructure.
Anita Gallucci, a Madison-based attorney who has worked extensively with municipalities on the internet issue, says this is a very low limit for local governments to clear.
When Madison conducted their own feasibility study on building a city system, he noted, the government went well beyond the three-year minimum in cost-benefit analysis.
The city eventually shelved the plan.
But other experts, like Orton, say the legislation is a gift to big corporations, which can use the feasibility report and their deep pockets to protect their monopoly and attack the plan in the community and in public hearings.
Another option is something the City of Superior is considering: building the Internet infrastructure, keeping the ownership, but allowing private companies to use the network to deliver the service and compete with each other.
The city is developing a strategic plan for the potential system, Councilman Tylor Elm said.
It’s a more recent model that has been successful in Idaho and Utah, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, a Minnesota-based think tank that helps communities with their telecommunications.
Municipalities that provide broadband are frightening and motivate companies that have little or no competition, Mitchell said. This can work in the city’s favor.
Before Antigo entered the market, the city was unable to persuade the only internet provider at the time to upgrade its internet connection from dial-up to faster DSL, said Jim Pike, communications and technology supervisor at Antigo.
“Threatens to do so,” Pike recommended to other municipalities, “and then it’s amazing how private individuals become cooperatives.”
In the case of Antigo, the private provider quickly upgraded its lines to DSL after the city announced its plans to build its own network, Pike noted.
At the state level
A lot can be done in Madison to improve your network as well.
Government grants can help Internet providers large and small to expand and improve their service. The Norvado Cooperative in Northern Wisconsin provides gigabit services in and around the city of Cable and is installing fiber optic lines throughout much of neighboring Price County.
This is a $ 20-25 million job that will enable hyperdrive Internet provision there. Norvado has received approximately $ 1.3 million in state grants for the Price County project.
Increased funding for broadband expansion is a step towards greater coverage, but state law requires municipalities to find a private partner to receive a grant.
State Senator Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) said the provision could allow private companies to block municipal attempts to break a monopoly.
Last year Smith proposed a package of bills that aimed to improve Internet access and speed in rural areas, one of which eliminated that requirement, but were ignored by Republicans.
In its budget proposal, the Evers administration made efforts to accelerate broadband expansion, including setting a goal that the entire state would have access to the federal definition of broadband speed by 2025. I Republicans canceled that provision.
The governor’s budget proposal also required state agencies to report to the legislator and to him providing updates on emerging Internet technologies.
And Evers sought advice on how to incentivize internet providers to better serve the internet deserts and proposals on how best to use state resources to alleviate the problem. Republicans also canceled those provisions.
Left-wing critics like Orton and Smith argue that the Internet should be regulated as a public service, with strong federal government oversight of price hikes, coverage, quality and other issues.
But the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that “US policy is to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that currently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, free from federal or state regulation.”
Over the next decade, the federal government’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund says it will allocate more than $ 20 billion in competitive grants to telecommunications companies to help build and improve broadband in rural areas. This program is promising, Mitchell said, but it is too late for municipalities to apply for this round of funding.
Congress and the FCC have also taken steps to improve federal maps that designate where service is poor or non-existent.
Experts are encouraged by federal changes to broadband policy, but beware it will take years to see the full effect of the improvements.
The same goes for technological advances like 5G, which experts say is far away and will likely spread to more profitable urban areas sooner.
Some have high hopes for Starlink, Elon Musk’s furious plan for a huge fleet of satellites circling the globe and broadcasting internet access to anyone with a wifi device.
Mitchell said he remains skeptical that it could work on a large scale.
In the meantime, those who are frustrated with their internet coverage can take a more proven course.
“People have to demand that their elected officials actually do something to improve broadband,” he said.
The Badger project is a nonprofit, citizen-backed, non-partisan investigative journalism organization of Wisconsin. Contact the writer by email at firstname.lastname@example.org