Democrats took early action on high-speed internet access, but locally it’s not partisan

The need for more Americans for better high-speed internet access is a common refrain these days – and it’s a rare one that stretches across the aisle.

Republicans and Democrats – from the country’s executive branch to city officials – have taken steps to expand access.

President George W. Bush called on all Americans to have high-speed internet access by 2007. In 2010, President Barack Obama released a report containing over 200 recommendations for improving broadband. In 2019, President Donald Trump unveiled the $ 20 billion Rural Digital Opportunities Fund and, in recent months, President Joe Biden affected tens of billions of dollars for broadband expansion as part of its infrastructure bill.

In Wisconsin, where about a quarter of rural residents live without high-speed internet access, the 2021-2023 budget signed by Governor Tony Evers set aside $ 129 million to develop a grants program that funds efforts to improve broadband services in areas that need them. The final budget was ultimately drafted by GOP lawmakers, who backed the provision.

(Evers had called for spending nearly $ 200 million on high-speed internet access in its budget proposal, which lawmakers rejected for other reasons.)

In one Interview on December 12, 2021 for Madison TV station WKOW’s Capital City Sunday program, State Senator Jon Erpenbach, D-West Point, spoke about how his party needs to do a better job of reaching rural voters – and cited broadband as an example of issues in which rural residents are unaware of Democratic efforts.

Democrats, he said, have been pushing for more high-speed internet access for years: “It doesn’t matter where you live, whether you have to have high-speed internet access – it was a Democratic thing.”

Is he right ? In Wisconsin, have Democrats led the charge to improve rural broadband?

Republican and Democratic approaches to improving rural broadband differ

When asked for support for the claim, Erpenbach spokesperson Kelly Becker pointed out a bill introduced in 2001 by Democrats, including former State Representative Jennifer Shilling, who then sat in the State Senate and left her seat in 2020, and former Senator Richard Grobschmidt, who died in 2016.

The bill would have required the now-dissolved state Department of Commerce to develop a map and database of broadband Internet service providers in Wisconsin. He was unsuccessful in this session.

Becker argued that Republicans in Wisconsin had failed to act on broadband until 2003, when they proposed to exempt broadband Internet service from regulation by the Civil Service Commission and local governments.

Barry Orton, professor emeritus of telecommunications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the Republican stance on broadband has historically been to deregulate the industry and allow the market to decide who gets what services.

This, he said, “has always left rural markets unprofitable with poor or no service.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have sought to fund broadband expansion for years, at least since the start of the Obama administration, Orton said.

Former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle announced in 2010 that the state spend almost $ 23 million in Obama’s federal stimulus funds U.S. Recovery and Reinvestment Act to improve broadband access in the state’s 72 counties.

A year later, when Wisconsin became a Republican under the leadership of former Governor Scott Walker, state officials made those stimulus funds to the federal government, saying there were too many conditions.

Becker also pointed out a motion 2015 Erpenbach did as a member of the joint state finance committee to make changes to the broadband expansion grant program, including expanding grant eligibility and creating a general purpose income credit biennial for the awarding of grants. The motion failed 12-4 on a party line vote.

Republicans in the state, however, say their original goal of eliminating the sales tax on Internet services predates the Democrats’ push for broadband expansion.

A spokesperson for State Representative Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer – who, along with State Senator Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, has called for better broadband infrastructure in Wisconsin – pointed out a 1999 bill seeking an exemption from sales and use tax for the provision of access or use of the Internet.

The bill was introduced in part by then-Speaker Scott Jensen, a Republican who represented Waukesha, said Alex Braaten, research assistant for Summerfield.

Jensen had previously advocated for reducing or eliminating this sales tax, in part because he believed it would limit the growth of the internet economy and the slow development of e-commerce, according to one. 1999 Milwaukee Business Journal article.

Braaten argued that in doing so, Jensen was seeking to make the internet more affordable for the people of Wisconsin and to ease the tax burden on small service providers so they could grow.

(In 2016, Congress passed a law prohibiting states and local governments from taxing Internet access. Wisconsin, one of the few states to still do so, was forced to phase out the tax from summer 2020.)

At the local level, the need for broadband is not a matter of policy

It should be noted that experts say the party doesn’t matter much when it comes to the need for high-speed internet in local communities.

Doug Dawson, a nationally recognized Internet consultant from North Carolina, told PolitiFact Wisconsin he couldn’t think of an example of political bias from the roughly 500 communities he worked with to improve access. in a large band.

“There are hardly any rural politicians opposed to improving broadband – and most are active supporters,” he wrote. “I guess most of these politicians are Republicans.”

Where the partisan divide begins to manifest itself, he said, is the question of how to fund better broadband – “and funding anything quickly becomes partisan.”

Our decision

Erpenbach said pushing for better high-speed internet access was “a democratic thing”.

Democrats have offered a wide variety of potential solutions and called for early funding, but Republicans have floated bills that could solve parts of the problem, albeit market-driven approaches that experts say would leave the most expensive places uncovered. Today, the two sides agree on the need for better broadband, but not quite on how to achieve it.

And at the local level, experts say advocating for better internet access is a local effort, not a political one.

We rate his claim as half-true.

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