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Understanding broadband options
For Crawford County
Jaron McCallum
JARON MCCALLUM is the Wisconsin Public Service Commission State Broadband Director. On April 28, he addressed a group of individuals in Crawford County working to solve the county’s broadband issues and spur economic development.

CRAWFORD COUNTY - Reviewing some of the material presented to the Crawford County Broadband Taskforce  by Wisconsin Public Service Commission State Broadband Director Jaron McCallum and taskforce leaders has revealed some interesting facts.

McCallum had a series of Power Point slides that accompanied his remote Zoom meeting presentation. Taskforce leaders Carol Roth (Driftless Development) and Jessica Jayne Spade (UW Extension) had a few PowerPoint slides of their own for the presentation.

One of the first slides presented by the taskforce leaders quoted Wisconsin State Senator Brad Pfaff (D-Onalaska), who represents the 32nd Senate District, which includes La Crosse, Vernon, Crawford and part of Monroe County.

“Broadband is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity,” Pfaff had written in op-ed piece in early February.

Pfaff was on hand at the Crawford County Broadband Task Force meeting, where he reaffirmed his belief the expansion of broadband access is a necessity. That same thought appears in statements made by Governor Tony Evers.

Also, on hand for the meeting was Wisconsin State Representative Loren Oldenburg (R-Viroqua). Oldenburg, who represents Crawford County, as well Vernon County and part of Monroe County,  also spoke in favor of getting good broadband access to everyone. The state representative supports bringing fiber optic cable to the home for all of the unserved and underserved in the county.

The Crawford County Broadband Taskforce was formed prior to the Crawford County Broadband Committee being formed by the county board at their last meeting.

The broadband task force is a joint effort of Driftless Development, represented at the meeting by acting Executive Director Carol Roth and the UW Extension, represented at the meeting by economic development educator Jessica Jayne Spade.

Another taskforce slide introduced by Roth posed the question, ‘Who does not have (broadband) internet?’

The answer was a bit depressing, but not surprising.

In low-income households, 55 to 60 percent did not have (broadband) internet.

In medium-income households, about 30 percent did not have (broadband) internet

In high-income households, 10 to 15 percent did not have (broadband) internet.

The PSC’s Broadband Presentation for Crawford County also contained lots of interesting information.

One of the first slides titled ‘Wisconsin Broadband Office Programs & Resources’ presented four distinct services. It noted the Broadband Expansion Grant Program had given out 268 grants worth $72 million in the last eight years to spur buildout of broadband. The slide also referenced the Broadband Telecommuter Forward! efforts to help get communities recognized for being ready to expand broadband access. There was also an acknowledgement for an Emergency Internet Resource that had been connecting residents to resources during the pandemic. 

Finally, the slide noted the Broadband Maps and Planning Tools that are so helpful to communities trying to expand broadband access. The resources list of 110-plus internet providers and the federal subsidies are noted on PSC-produced maps.

“Our mission is to make high performance broadband more accessible, resilient, competitive and affordable in Wisconsin,” according to the slide.

Another slide specifically explained the PSC Broadband Expansion Grants. It noted the purpose of the grants is to encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications capability in underserved areas of the state.

Grant applications are scored using a set of priority factors  set forth in statute, the slide explained.

The PSC relies on applications to determine where service will be provided. The scoring system gives priority to applications proposing to serve an unserved area. Applicants that are awarded grants are usually given two years to complete construction of the broadband facilities. However, the award can be extended for good reason.

In another slide, the PSC defined who may apply for a Broadband Expansion Grant.

The applicants must fall within one of the following three categories:

• An organization operated for profit or not-for-profit, including a co-operative.

• A telecommunications utility.

• A city village, town or county that has entered into a partnership with an eligible organization or telecommunication utility

Another slide listed the specific items of information that must be discussed in the grant applications.

The statute that authorizes the Broadband Grant Program requires the Commission give priority to applications that include any of the seven factors listed in the statute:

• Matching funds

• Existing broadband services

• Scalability

• Will not delay broadband service in adjacent areas

• Public/private partnerships

• Project impact

• Economic impact 

To date, the Broadband Grant program has been quite competitive, the slide notes. The Commission has received many more applications than it can fund. The discussion of priority factors has been the key element of the application that the Commission has used to decide which applications to fund.

A slide briefly explained the Fiscal Year 2021 Broadband Expansion Grants. It noted 124 applications were received requesting over $62 million. The PSC awarded $28.4 million to 56 projects impacting locations in 44 counties. The projects approved for funding included 49 fiber-to-the-premises  projects, six fixed-wireless projects, one fiber middle-mile project and two cable projects

 The  awarded projects ranged in size from $40,000 to $2.2 million.

The slide also noted that the $28.4 million of state investment leveraged $49.2 million of private and local money to build-out needed broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas of the state.

Governor Evers’ proposed budget for the ‘Year of Broadband’ was also explained. It included:

• Broadband Expansion Grant funding of $150 million

• Supporting Municipal Broadband

• Broadband Infrastructure Owned by Electric Utilities and Co-operatives

• Broadband Line Extension Grant Program $4.4 million

• Internet Assistance Program $40 million

• Broadband Customer Protections

• Broadband Planning and Leadership Grant Program

• Teach IT Funding for Schools and Libraries

Another slide reviewed some of the federal money available in the Consolidated Appropriation Act-2021 Funding including Emergency Broad Benefit of $3.2 billion among other funding.

The next slide gave an overview of the Emergency Broadband Benefit. It noted:

• the program is funded with $3.2 billion through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021

• The program offers a temporary discount of up to $50 per month off of eligible household’s internet access bills

• Low-income households may also get discounts on laptop, desktop or tablet computers

• The broadband provider will receive the money directly for providing service to  an eligible household

• Participation by providers is voluntary, but it is anticipated to be robust.

Subsequent slides outlined other options for funding and one discussed the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund–a reverse auction of grant aid awarded to the bidder that needs the least. It appears that a Las Vegas-based telecommunication company called LTD Broadband may have been selected in that auction to receive aid to provide broadband in Crawford County. This situation will be investigated and explained in a future story in the Independent- Scout.

Jaron McCallum's final slide was designed to show the way forward for rural underserved communities trying to bring broadband internet to their residents.

‘Gather, Develop, Plan, Prepare,’ the slide was titled.

It advised:

• Educate and Advocate

• Invite multiple ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to the table early and often

• Collect and use data, but keep the experience of people first

• Get shovel ready

• Get digital equity ready: Build ‘on ramps’ and ‘guardrails’

• Share risks and rewards–maybe share ownership

• Support local broadband champions

Although the Crawford County Broadband Task Force and the Crawford County Board’s  Broadband Committee may have a way to go to getting broadband internet service to the unserved and underserved residents, it looks like there’s help and momentum building around the state and around the nation to help those in need. It may be that a historical moment is at hand–much like rural electrification was in the previous century.