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Our Path Forward: Good Broadband Coverage For Everyone

Wisconsin should expand high-quality broadband availability throughout the state. An ambitious but achievable goal is at least a 100 Mbps connection everywhere within 5 years; a more modest one would be getting this state into the 10 in national rankings (we are currently 49th) within the same period. We should get the best minds in the state to work with affected communities and business to figure out how to do this, what it will cost, and how to finance it, and produce a detailed action plan and proposal to the next Governor and legislature within 60 days of their first meeting.

What’s the Problem Addressed?
Wisconsin ranks poorly in broadband coverage and speed. Good broadband (a wired or wireless connection to the World Wide Web) is no longer a matter of individual enjoyment and convenience, but a necessity for flourishing business and community life.

Internet connection speed is measured in the megabits1 per second (Mbps) a given connection maintains in downloading or uploading data. Wisconsin’s average download speed is 25.5., which is less than half the national average of 54 Mbps. That puts us 49th among the states and DC.2 Service quality is particularly poor in rural areas; better than half (57%) of Wisconsin’s rural population lacks access to download speeds of 25 Mbps or more, or “basic broadband.”3 Without basic (or better) broadband, rural areas cannot offer the children the educational and cultural resources available in communities with adequate internet service, and it is impossible to attract and retain certain businesses.  By not ensuring adequate coverage, the state is contributing to the social and economic decline of rural communities.4 However, improving coverage has beneficial effects, as we know from neighboring states like Iowa and Minnesota. It not only immediately improves the quality of everyday life, but also increases business startups and retention, job growth, income, and even population.5

Figure 1.6 Broadband Availability in Wisconsin Figure 2.7 Broadband Statistics and Rankings in Wisconsin

Broadband service is unavailable in many rural areas because the returns to private for-profit telecommunications companies (AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Spectrum, TDS, etc.) of providing service in low-density areas are too low. But Wisconsin political leadership has done little in the way of regulation or public investment to discipline this private market, and even less to replace its predatory actors with more responsible community-owned ones

Governor Walker has led the charge of privatization, deregulation, and non-enforcement of service promises telecoms have repeatedly made and broken.8 Despite his pro-market rhetoric, he’s been a tireless advocate for telecom monopoly. He tried to score political points by turning down – as with his shenanigans on Medicaid and high-speed rail money — at least $23 million in federal money for rural broadband.9 Walker’s been awful on rural broadband, but there’s plenty of blame to go around both major parties

How OWR Proposal Addresses It
Our proposal is not a budget or implementation plan, but a call for an honest, informed discussion to produce that, and for action afterward to implement it. Any progress on increasing coverage and speed will diminish the problem. What we don’t know, since we don’t yet have a decent state government to work with, are the resources we can bring to bear on that positive action. 

Who Else is Doing This?
The problem with rural broadband today has an obvious analogy: the problem with rural electrification in the early part of the last century. Then as now, private profit-seeking firms saw no point in serving low-density areas. But then, unlike now, the public was willing to pool their resources to solve this problem in a cost-effective way. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 provided federal loans for electrification, and established more than 400 rural electric cooperatives, owned by their members, to provide the service.  

There has been no comparable federal initiative on rural broadband. The Obama administration tried, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and various USDA programs, to build one, but Republican leaders in state and the federal government succeeded in making these smaller and less coherent than hoped. But even the modest federal efforts, and occasional state leadership, achieved clear results. Consider the success of USDA’s $345 million investment to bring broadband to rural Iowa.10 Or consider Minnesota’s efforts, which dwarf our own, with comparable positives for rural life there.11 By contrast, Wisconsin’s Broadband Expansion Grant Program is nearly minuscule – $1.5 million in grants per year in 2016 and 2017, with most of that going to the telecoms that create the problem.12 More recently, with great fanfare, Governor Walker recently asked for and got legislative approval for another $35 million in funding over the next three years. But about half of that ($16 million) is earmarked only for schools and libraries, and the balance can be used for purposes other than bringing high-speed broadband to rural areas.13 So, still a truly feeble start on a project that will likely cost several billion dollars.

Why Not Wisconsin?
We can find the money if we want to (from the Feds– hello, Congressional delegation, remember us!? – state coffers, and eventual consumers). And surely we can spend it more responsibly than we have by enforcing rules with private partners. We can join with other states in this region to cut costs through joint purchasing. We can recall our Public Service Commission from crony capitalism to public service by replacing most of its current members. We might even use our local expertise and cooperative traditions, together with restored home rule, to leapfrog over the predatory telecoms, and establish community-owned broadband with better, faster, cheaper technology, with all the proceeds of that service staying in Wisconsin to helping to growth wealth here.

NOTES

  1. A “bit” is the smallest unit of digital data. A “Megabit” is a million bits.
  2.  Barrett, R. (2016, August 8). Wisconsin broadband speeds lagging. (http://www.jsonline.com/story/money/2016/08/08/wisconsin-broadband-speeds-lagging/88416370/)
  3. Singleton, M. (2015, January 29). The FCC has changed the definition of broadband (http://www.theverge.com/2015/1/29/7932653/fcc-changed-definition-broadband-25mbps)
  4. Whitacre, B., Gallardo, R., & Stover, S. (2015, February). Broadband’s contribution to economic health in rural areas (https://cardi.cals.cornell.edu/publications/research-policy-briefs/broadband%E2%80%99s-contribution-economic-health-rural-areas
  5. Hupka, Y. (2014). Findings on the economic benefits of broadband expansion to rural and remote areas.  (http://www.cura.umn.edu/sites/cura.advantagelabs.com/files/publications/CAP-188.pdf
  6.  Wisconsin Broadband Office (2018) (https://maps.psc.wi.gov/apps/WisconsinBroadbandMap/)
  7.  Broadband Now (2018) (https://broadbandnow.com/Wisconsin)
  8.  For the best treatment of this sorry history of corporate betrayal and government corruption, see Bruce Kushnick (2015) The Book of Broken Promises: $400 Billion Broadband Scandal & Free the Net (New York: New Networks Institute)
  9.  Averill, A. (2011, February 15). “Wisconsin returns $23M national grant for internet access in-state”. (http://badgerherald.com/news/2011/02/15/wisconsin-returns-23/)
  10.  Rural broadband success stories highlight how USDA’s $345 million investment is helping expand high speed access across Iowa. (https://www.rd.usda.gov/newsroom/news-release/rural-broadband-success-stories-highlight-how-usda%E2%80%99s-345-million-investment)
  11.  Sturdevant, L. (2017, February 10). Broadband is still the missing link in rural Minnesota. (http://www.startribune.com/broadband-is-still-the-missing-link-in-rural-minnesota/413462173/)
  12. Glaze, J. (2016, January 26). Rural broadband advocates: state’s efforts ‘insignificant’. (http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/rural-broadband-advocates-state-s-efforts-insignificant/article_9392cb87-8db0-5be0-ad71-6fd7ca62aa6c.html)
  13.  Governor Walker calls on state legislature to pass rural broadband expansion bill. (2016, December 1). (https://walker.wi.gov/press-releases/governor-walker-calls-state-legislature-pass-rural-broadband-expansion-bill)
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