Gov. Tony Evers, the state Public Service Commission and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation selected six communities to participate in a program focused on expanding broadband access Thursday.
The joint Broadband Connectors Pilot Program will help localities apply for federal, state and private-sector broadband expansion funds. The selected communities include the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, the Ho-Chunk Nation, the School District of Owen-Withee, the Town of Cross, St. Croix County and Fond du Lac County.
WEDC identified broadband as an important way to help Wisconsin businesses recover from the pandemic. Gaps in broadband coverage in rural communities have impacted online learning, teleworking and onlines sales.
“Throughout the listening sessions of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity this summer, residents came with one consistent message: they need broadband to stay connected for jobs, education and healthcare,” WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes said in a press release.
Ninety-six applications from local governments were received from Sept. 21-30. Participants were selected based on their initial efforts toward broadband expansion and their goals for technical assistance.
“Such a tremendous response demonstrates that there is a strong desire to apply for state and federal broadband funding, but the challenge for many communities is a lack of resources to participate,” PSC Chair Rebecca Cameron Valcq said. “This pilot program shows promise to push through that barrier, allowing communities to take steps to connect their residents more quickly.”
Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Eau Claire, supported the pilot program and its inclusion of communities in western Wisconsin.
“Broadband expansion is critical for Wisconsin’s growth and economic development. I stand alongside Governor Evers in recognizing the urgency and importance of broadband expansion and continuing to work to achieve this goal,” Smith said in a statement.
According to a 2019 Legislative Reference Bureau report, broadband disparities between rural and urban areas are more pronounced in Wisconsin compared to nationwide statistics. In 2018, 43 percent of rural Wisconsinites lacked access to high-speed internet compared to 30.7 percent nationally, according to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.
Gov. Evers created a task force to address broadband access in Wisconsin in July. According to WPR, the task force comprises telecommunications providers, tribal representatives, lawmakers and educational institutions. The Wisconsin Broadband Plan’s goal is for every Wisconsinite to have broadband access by 2025.
The PSC is accepting applications through Dec. 1 for $24 million in grants that were appropriated in the state 2019-21 budget. Evers allocated $5 million in CARES Act funding to the PSC in September to fulfill more grant applications.
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