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Expanding broadband goal of PSC grants

WISCONSIN - There is cacophony of sound surrounding the goal of providing broadband internet access in rural Wisconsin and its ability to spur economic development. However, the amount of action in pursuit of this goal tends to be quite a bit less than the sound.

Scores of state elected official and  study groups across the political spectrum strongly support enhanced access to broadband internet-particularly in unserved and underserved rural areas. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased need for ‘virtual education’ and ‘working from home’ the problem of lack of broadband access in rural Wisconsin was driven home.

Expansion of broadband internet access, particularly in rural areas, is a stated priority of the federal and state government. Both have made funding available to providers and their local partners to increase broadband connectivity.

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission is in the process of administering a two-year plan to fund $48 million in broadband expansion grants. The first year of the grants, the PSC approved grants totaling $24 million, while $26 million in grant applications were rejected.

In the second year, grant applications for state broadband expansion were due by December 1, 2020.

On December 7, the Wisconsin Public Service Commission announced that $62 million in grants had been requested in 124 applications this year. However, the PSC has only $24 million remaining in funding from the two year program. That means $38 million in grant requests will be rejected, when the decisions on grant funding are made this spring.

Nevertheless, state officials seemed optimistic about the process going forward.

"Once again, we received an overwhelming response demonstrating an immense need for funding to provide broadband service. This spring, we will decide which projects to fund, but clearly, there is a pattern of higher demand for these grants than what is available," said PSC Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq. "Governor Evers' commitment to connect all of our residents is unwavering and I want to thank him for this investment."

It should be noted that Governor Evers’ original two-year budget proposed $78 million for broadband expansion grants. This would have gone much further in meeting the requests-especially considering that $112 million in requests included some duplicate requests from unfunded projects in the first round.

"We hear from folks around the state about the need for access to high-speed internet. COVID-19 has underscored this demand and the need to continue to support broadband grant funding, as well as all other alternatives to get people connected," said Governor Tony Evers. "Our investments are connecting people, but the demand for funding is clearly outpacing supply, so we look forward to continuing our work to expand access to broadband across Wisconsin."

The 2019-2021 biennial budget, which Governor Evers signed last year, provided $48 million over the biennium for broadband expansion grants, according to a PSC statement. While the Governor’s original budget proposal included over $78 million for broadband, $48 million remains an historic investment. 

The broadband expansion grants help find a path to return on investment in areas of the state that are challenging to serve due to population density, the PSC statement explained. Since 2014, 210 grants have been awarded and have connected or are in the process of connecting over 7,000 businesses and 117,000 homes to high-speed broadband internet service.

The PSC’s State Broadband Office made the second round of grant applications available on September 1, 2020 and they were due on December 1, 2020. For the first round of funding, the PSC received 143 applications requesting $50.3 million. In March of 2020, the PSC awarded 72 grants to extend high-speed broadband internet access to as many as 3,182 businesses and 46,537 homes, including 39,778 locations currently unserved. The PSC is expected to award the remaining $24 million in grants by spring of 2021.

Locally, there were several broadband expansion grant applications to the PSC that propose to improve broadband internet service.

Vernon Communications is proposing to install fiber optic cable in a subdivision of Ferryville. The grant application, seeking $172,900, says the project will offer Vernon Communications broadband service to 58 residences and eight businesses with the possibility of adding another 72 residences in the future. The co-op will spend $179,950 on the project.

The application indicates 41 residences and eight businesses are unserved. Those receiving service will become members of the co-operative. The co-op currently has fiber optic cable service in its adjoining service areas. 

Vernon Communications’ basic fiber optic package will be 25 mbps (megabytes per second) download and 25 mbps upload. The price, the same service offered to all Vernon Communication Co-op members, will be $49.95 per month. Higher speeds at increased prices, as well as other services are available. 

Vernon Communications offers up to a gigabyte (1,000 mbps) service. The co-op offers 100 mbps down and 100 mbps up on the fiber optic cable network for under $100 per month.

Another local broadband project seeking a PSC broadband expansion grant of $274,464 was submitted by Bug Tussel. This proposal would build two cellphone towers–one in Wauzeka and one in Steuben. Bug Tussel and partners would pay $335,456 toward the project. 

The proposed project would offer 25 mbps down and 5 mbps up on a fixed wireless network. The cost is quoted as $49.95 per month. Bug Tussel stated in the grant application the project would provide access to 334 residences and 14 businesses with 74 residences and 14 businesses currently unserved.

The highest possible speed in the Bug Tussel project is 100 mbps down and 20 mbps up. Bug Tussel CEO Steve Schneider previously stated at a special meeting of the Crawford County Board that this ‘business’ package (100/20) would cost $200 per month.

Vernon Communications is also pursuing a PSC Broadband Expansion Grant of $395,415 to complete its network in the rural Viroqua area. The co-op would pay $483,285 toward the project to serve 127 residences and 17 businesses-including 80 unserved residences and 10 unserved businesses.

So, which grant applications will be approved and which will be rejected? That will be up to PSC to decide at their spring meeting.