Wisconsin awards $125 million in rural internet service grants to homes

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission awarded $125 million in broadband expansion grants for 71 projects aimed at reaching approximately 83,000 homes and 4,600 businesses.

The projects will impact 45 counties, according to the PSC, bringing new or improved internet access to unserved and underserved areas.

A total of 194 applications requested more than $495 million in funding. A selection committee reviewed each application, assigned a score, and then the curators made final decisions.

“We will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure everyone in our state has access to affordable broadband,” PSC President Rebecca Cameron Valcq said in a statement Thursday.

Bug Tussel, a rural Internet service provider based in Green Bay, received about $20 million to expand service to Jefferson, Clark, Lincoln, Marathon, Green Lake, Rock and other counties.

Engineering is already underway and construction will take place in many areas in 2023, said Steve Schneider, president and CEO of Bug Tussel.

“It all makes for a really good day,” he said.

More than $5 million went to three projects in Vilas County aimed at reaching 3,000 homes and businesses. County service providers have been among the top recipients of broadband subsidies for years.

The PSC says about 650,000 people in the state lack of internet access at home 25 megabits per second downloads and 3 Mbps downloads, nothing special in today’s digital world but enough to stream a video or take an online course. In addition, according to officials, another 650,000 people simply cannot afford the service offered to them.

These numbers come as state and federal agencies have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars expanding broadband service. Yet in many places it is still extremely difficult to work from home or even upload a video because internet speeds are so slow and unreliable.

The PSC says its goal is to ensure everyone has access to at least minimum broadband speeds and that most people get much better service than that over the next five years.

At Thursday’s meeting in Madison, Commissioner Ellen Nowak objected to some grant spending and the process of allocating $125 million through public-private partnerships.

“While I voted to approve all of the proposed projects, I continue to have serious reservations about the financing plan proposed by Bug Tussel. Their new interpretation of a public-private partnership makes local government a bank and a guarantor for private society,” Nowak said.

“This is a risky business for taxpayers and poses little or no risk to the private entity. I don’t believe this is what the legislature intended when it passed the law,” a- she added.

Nowak said she would have preferred to fund more projects using fiber optic cable to deliver service directly to homes rather than wireless service which is typically much slower and less reliable.

According to some industry players, it could cost several billion dollars to close all the broadband coverage gaps in the state. Grants are for areas that are difficult to connect due to low population density or geography.

Over the past eight years, 434 broadband grants have been awarded through the Public Service Commission using state and federal funds. But while many areas have benefited from the grants, some will need to be funded more than once because the original service was inadequate.

“We’re now going back and covering areas that we covered in grant cycles that weren’t that long,” Nowak said.

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