To close the year that Governor Tony Evers predicted would be the “Year of broadband access“, the State Civil Service Commission has opened requests for grants of up to $ 100 million that it wishes to grant in the summer of 2022.
Evers started 2021 with her statement during the State of State address, and the committee chair this week reflected on what she called an “incredibly productive 2021.”
“We really haven’t stopped working on this,” Rebecca Cameron Valcq said on WPR’s “The Morning Show” Tuesday.
She said the commission’s best estimate since early 2021 showed that about 650,000 Wisconsin residents lacked access to the infrastructure necessary for broadband connectivity. About the same number of residents did not have broadband access because they could not afford it.
She added that the state commission can dig deeper and get more comprehensive estimates than the Federal Communications Commission.
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The $ 100 million is part of the $ 129 million included in the 2021-23 budget that Evers signed in July. A Dec. 1 press release from the commission said it planned to award up to $ 100 million in early summer 2022, with nominations (available on the PSC website) due on March 17.
These are not the first grants the commission will award. Jerel Ballard, director of state commission communications, said in an email that since 2019, PSC has donated money for projects that will provide new or better broadband service for over 300,000. locations.
Additionally, the commission received $ 100 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. During this process, 242 applicants requested more than $ 440 million.
The advice on how to distribute federal dollars was different from the state grant program, Valcq said. The focus for federal funds was fiber, “which we all know is sort of the gold standard” when it comes to broadband connectivity. Federal funds have also drawn attention to “small co-ops”.
With all of these funds coming in, Valcq said the success of the statewide grant program means they are better able to handle the influx of federal dollars.
“We were able to really get started with the infrastructure we have in place to figure out how to target the dollars to ensure that the broadband infrastructure goes exactly where it’s needed,” she said.
Valcq said the broadband problem is like a “three-legged stool,” with one leg each being infrastructure, affordability and adoption. She said adoptions include issues of digital literacy and device availability, for example.
She said “throttling,” or when Internet service providers deliberately slow down Internet speeds, is a common complaint to the commission.
Evers in her budget proposal contained a provision that would have contributed to consumer protection and price transparency in broadband, but said this was ultimately not passed in the final version of the budget.
“Unfortunately, right now, as we sit here, we don’t have enough consumer protections in place.,” she said.
Evers earlier this year said high-speed internet access was not a “luxury.”
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“It is a necessity,” he said. “Every Wisconsinite in our state should have access to reliable high-speed internet. Period.”
Valcq agreed, but she knows they haven’t reached that goal yet.
“We know there is still work to be done,” she said.