Peter Cameron writes for the Badger Project, a nonpartisan, citizen-supported, investigative journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.
WISCONSIN - On February 19, Wisconsin State Senator Jeff Smith, an Eau Claire Democrat, stood from his chair in the Capitol chambers and begged his colleagues to pass his amendment.
Smith’s proposal had two objectives: First, a dig-once law, requiring all major excavation projects in the state to bury empty conduit for fiber optic cables that provide fast internet. Second, a mandate that any telecommunications company installing those cables hook up every home and business within 300 feet.
Wisconsin State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Republican from Juneau in southeastern Wisconsin, seemed to hesitate. He called Smith’s proposal a “good idea.”
Then, like every other amendment from the minority party that day, Fitzgerald moved to reject it. The Republican majority followed his lead and killed the amendment.
“That’s the world we’re living in in politics,” Smith said afterward. “And, it’s really frustrating.”
The Republican-controlled legislature already had ignored a bundle of bills from Smith intended to improve internet access and speed, especially in rural areas.
Fitzgerald, who is running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and will leave the State Senate if he wins, did not return messages seeking comment.
If you live in rural Wisconsin, you know how bad the internet service can be. More than 40 percent of rural residents lack access to high speed internet, according to the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin. Nationally, about 31 percent of rural households lack access. Actual percentages might even be higher due to poor FCC mapping, experts say. More on that later.
The Wisconsin government has done relatively little to help. From 2013-2019, the state funded about $20 million in grants for expansion of broadband, an amount experts say is less than negligible. In a similar time period, Minnesota shelled out more than $108 million in broadband expansion grants, and providers had to match those grants with another $146 million, said Eric Lightner, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
That’s a total of $255 million for broadband expansion in Minnesota, more than 10 times greater than Wisconsin’s investment. Now, about 16 percent of rural households in Minnesota lack access to high speed internet, Lightner said.
Since becoming governor in 2019, Democrat Tony Evers has tried to invest more money into the rural broadband gap. After his request, the Republican-controlled legislature increased funding for broadband expansion, but also blocked several of the governor’s other attempts to speed the expansion. And they let Smith’s bills die in the sun.
Some Republicans cringe at the high cost of installing fiber optic cables throughout rural Wisconsin, where there can 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 issue is the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced many to work and study from home 100 percent of the time.
“This has become five times more important now than it was before,” said Barry Orton, a telecommunications professor emeritus at UW-Madison, “and it was really important before.”
If you want faster internet at your home sooner rather than later, you can get involved. Here’s how.
If your local internet companies are providing lousy service and uninterested in upgrading, you have another option.
The city or town where you live can build its own internet infrastructure, and even provide the service. You might not have to pay higher taxes for the improvements, though that’s certainly a possibility. If you want to start the conversation, you can raise it with your local government at the county or municipal level.
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 well beyond that.
The city entered the digital fray in the late 1990s, making the costly investment to bury a network of fiber optic cables. Now its utility delivers internet at the lightspeed of a gigabit – 1,000 megabytes per second for downloading and 1,000 megabytes per second for uploading. What’s the price? About $50 per month per subscriber. And the utility has been successful enough that it continues to expand its system, according to Brett Schuppner, the utility’s general manager.
The city of Waupaca, with a population of about 6,000, also provides internet to more than 300 business and residential accounts, said Joshua Werner, the city’s IT & Community Media Director. The city offers wireless internet without data caps, an annoyance familiar to many rural subscribers. The speeds Waupaca provides are much slower than the gigabit service in Reedsburg, but faster than the sluggish DSL the private companies offer in the area.
However, those communities are unusual in Wisconsin. Because they own the infrastructure and provide the internet service, they have to do all the things a giant company like AT&T or CenturyLink does: run a billing department, staff a customer service call center, send out “cable guys” to hook up customers and fix problems.
Many cities and towns are understandably reluctant to take on that financial risk and additional work. If that’s the case where you live, your municipal government can do what Richland Center and Sun Prairie did: build their own high-speed infrastructure, and then sell it – at a profit – to a private company to manage, maintain and expand.
The municipal route doesn’t always work, as the City of Shawano can attest. Starting in 2007, the municipal government built a large system that provided broadband internet, phone and cable TV service, at a whopping cost of $8.5 million. When the city tried to unload the system in 2013, the highest bid came in at $1.25 million, said Brian Knapp, general manager of Shawano Municipal Utilities.
Even if a municipality doesn’t get its money back, the investment can still bear fruit, often at a much lower price than Shawano’s ambitious system. Antigo spent about $2.7 to build a broadband network only – no TV or phone – and will receive a total of $1.6 million from a local phone company leasing it before the transfer in ownership in 2030, according to Kaye Matucheski, the city’s finance director.
Sounds like another losing proposition. Except that the city which had a turtle – dial up – before it got involved, now has a cheetah – gigabit service.
State law mandates that a city or town in Wisconsin complete a three-year feasibility study and hold a public hearing before building its own internet infrastructure.
Anita Gallucci, a Madison-based attorney who has worked extensively with municipalities on the internet issue, says this is a very low bar for local governments to hop over. When Madison conducted its own feasibility study of building a city-wide system, she noted, the government went well beyond the three-year minimum in analyzing costs and benefits. The city ultimately shelved the plan.
But other experts, such as Orton, say the legislation is a gift to private companies enjoying a lack of competition, which can use the feasibility report and their own deep pockets to attack the plan in the community and at public hearings.
“Forcing a public hearing based on the economics spelled out in the statute gives opponents all they need for a taxpayer scare campaign that would force any proponent to cave,” Orton said.
When Sun Prairie considered expanding its broadband network to the entire city, local providers like Frontier and Charter campaigned against it, said Rick Wicklund, the city’s utility manager.
“If they spent as much time investing in their network as they do talking down about other people, they would have been money ahead,” Wicklund said with a chuckle.
Sun Prairie backed off its plans, citing high risk. TDS bought the network and expanded it.
Another option is something the City of Superior is considering: build the internet infrastructure, maintain ownership, but allow private companies to use the network to provide the service and compete against each other. The city is developing a strategic plan for the potential system, Councilman Tylor Elm said.
It’s a newer 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 providing broadband are scary and motivating to companies enjoying little to no competition, Mitchell said. That can work in the town’s favor.
Before Antigo entered the market, the city was unable to persuade the only internet provider at the time to upgrade its internet from dial up to the faster DSL, said Jim Pike, Antigo’s communication and technology supervisor.
“Threaten to do it,” Pike recommended to other municipalities, “and then it’s amazing how cooperative the private folks get.”
In Antigo’s case, the private provider quickly improved its lines to DSL after the city announced its plans to build its own network, Pike noted.
So a municipality can do it, but might need persuading.
“I think the single greatest limit on Wisconsin’s local governments doing more to solve the problem is a resistance from those elected leaders to get involved in something they are intimidated by,” Mitchell said. “Residents and businesses have to push them if they want to have better service.”
At the state level
Much can be done in Madison to improve your internet as well.
Start with finding your state representative and state senator and asking what they’re doing to boost broadband in the state and in your area.
Republicans had total control of Wisconsin state government from 2011 through 2018, in which they shelled out a meager total of $20 million to the broadband expansion grant program. By comparison, Madison’s system would have cost $173 million just to cover the city.
In his first budget, Evers proposed boosting the broadband expansion grant program to $75 million over two years, a figure Republicans scaled back to $44 million, still a big bump.
If you’re represented by Republicans, you might want to ask them why they haven’t put more money towards broadband expansion grants when Wisconsin lags behind the national average in rural coverage. If you’re represented by Democrats, you can ask what they would do if returned to power in the legislature.
One positive result of Republicans holding the line on spending is lower taxes. After eight years of complete GOP control of state government, Wisconsin residents enjoyed their lowest tax burden in 50 years, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.
Lower tax consequences
State grants can help large and small internet providers to expand and improve service. The co-op Norvado in northern Wisconsin provides gigabit service in and around the town of Cable, and is installing fiber optic lines throughout much of nearby Price County. That’s a $20-25 million job that will allow delivery of hyperdrive internet there.
“We would never be able to do that without the state (funding),” said Chad Mix, the co-op’s marketing director. Norvado has received about $1.3 million in state grants for the Price County project. “That’s what pushes it over the edge.”
An increase in funding for broadband expansion is a step toward greater coverage, but state law requires municipalities to find a private partner in order to receive a grant. Smith said that provision could allow private companies to block municipal attempts at breaking a monopoly, but his bill to eliminate that requirement withered and died with the rest of them.
In his budget proposal, Evers’ administration made efforts to hasten broadband expansion, including setting a goal that the entire state would have access to the federal definition of broadband speed by 2025. Republicans deleted that provision.
The governor’s budget proposal also requested that state agencies submit a report to the legislature and him that would provide updates on emerging internet technologies. And Evers sought recommendations on how to incentivize internet providers to better serve internet deserts and proposals on how best to use state resources to alleviate the problem. Republicans deleted those provisions too.
Wisconsin’s dominant telecommunications company, AT&T, remains “a very powerful force in Madison,” Mitchell noted. The company spent more than $3 million in the past decade lobbying in Madison, according to state records.
“Local companies have generally done either a very good job or a decent job of trying to connect people,” Mitchell said. “The places in rural Wisconsin that are served by CenturyLink, Frontier, AT&T, those areas are probably more or less miserable. So we don’t have as much a rural broadband problem as we do a problem with national telephone companies refusing to invest in rural areas.”
Given the chance to a comment, AT&T directed The Badger Project to USTelecom, a trade association that represents the industry. CenturyLink did not respond to requests for comment.
“USTelecom members – including the companies cited – are committed to rural broadband deployment and bringing the power and potential of connectivity to all, regardless of where they live and work,” said USTelecom spokesman Brian Weiss. “Providers invested $70 billion last year alone in communications networks and work constantly to upgrade network infrastructure and expand higher speed offerings.”
At the federal level
The biggest money for rural broadband is coming from the federal government.
With programs such as the Connect America Fund, the federal government has spent billions to expand broadband throughout the country. Since 2015, internet service providers in Wisconsin have received a huge pile of money – about $1 billion – in federal funding.
Most of that money – more than $800 million – has gone to large providers CenturyLink, Frontier and AT&T in the state, according to FCC data.
And, experts say the big companies appear to have taken the money while doing little to expand broadband.
“The evidence that the money wasn’t spent well is that those areas have received thousands of dollars per household and they have very little to show for it,” Mitchell said. “The program was poorly designed – and deliberately so to favor the power incumbents.”
“For someone who wants to criticize government, it’s a classic example of horribly spent money,” Mitchell said of the federal Connect America Fund. But that “disaster” is improving, he said, in part because the feds have made the grant process more competitive.
In the past couple years, the U.S. has moved up to 10th place in average internet speed in the developed world, but it remains a country where internet service is comparatively very expensive, according to the FCC.
Over the next 10 years, the federal government’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is expected to spend more than $20 billion in unserved and underserved portions across the country to help bring high-speed internet service there or enhance what already exists. It will require companies and cooperatives to bid against each other for local projects, and provide – at a minimum – the federal definition of broadband.
“Our members look forward to participating in that auction process,” Weiss said.
But problems exist. Especially with the federal maps that designate unserved and underserved regions.
“The basics are,” Orton said, “the federal maps suck.”
The primary issue is that the maps are based on census blocks, and the FCC considers a block served if only one address in its boundaries has internet access. Blocks, however, vary wildly in size, with some in rural regions being the size of Connecticut.
In addition, the maps are based on information that internet companies provide. And, the companies are not required to share precisely where they offer service, said Matthew Sweeney, a PSC spokesman.
To help alleviate the problem, the FCC announced last year it will begin collecting fixed broadband data at a more local and specific level.
And in March, President Donald Trump signed into law the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act, which sponsors say will further improve the accuracy of the maps and allow more public input and crowdsourcing.
In a filing with the FCC earlier this year, AT&T made major corrections to the maps, saying it did not provide broadband to thousands of census blocks across the country where they previously said they had. They now can use federal funding to deliver broadband to those areas. Other large telecommunications companies have made similar, large corrections.
But internet service providers are rarely, if ever, penalized for making reporting errors to the FCC, Mitchell said.
Left-leaning critics such as Orton and Smith argue that the internet should be regulated like a public utility, with heavy oversight from the federal government on price increases, coverage, quality and other issues.
But the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 states that, “it is the policy of the United States to preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet and other interactive computer services, unfettered by Federal or State regulation.”
Experts are encouraged by federal changes to broadband policy, but caution it will take years to see the improvements’ full effect.
The same goes for technological advances like 5G, which experts say is far off and likely to spread to more profitable urban areas first.
Some have high hopes for Starlink, Elon Musk’s astronomer-enraging plan for a massive fleet of satellites circling the globe and beaming internet access to anyone with a wifi device.
Mitchell said he remains skeptical it can work on a large scale. In the meantime, those frustrated with their internet coverage can take a more proven course.“People need to demand that their elected officials actually do something to improve broadband,” he said.