Wisconsin awards $125M in rural internet service grants. Which communities will receive higher speeds?

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
M. J. Electric workers trench fiber optic cable in rural Marathon County near Marathon City in May. The Public Service Commission says approximately 650,000 people in the state lack home internet access of 25 megabit per second downloads and 3 Mbps uploads, fast enough for streaming a video or taking an online class, but still a struggle for families with several people online at the same time. 


The Wisconsin Public Service Commission has awarded $125 million in broadband expansion grants for 71 projects aimed at reaching around 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.

Altogether there were 194 applications requesting more than $495 million in funding. A screening panel reviewed each application, assigned a score and then the commissioners made the final decisions.

"We will continue to make the investments needed to ensure all in our state have access to affordable broadband," PSC Chairperson Rebecca Cameron Valcq said in a statement Thursday. 

Bug Tussel, a rural internet service provider based in Green Bay, was awarded around $20 million to expand service in Jefferson, Clark, Lincoln, Marathon, Green Lake, Rock, and other counties.

Engineering is already under way and construction will take place in many areas in 2023, said Bug Tussel President and CEO Steve Schneider.

"All of this makes for a pretty darn good day," he said. 

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

The PSC says approximately 650,000 people in the state lack home internet access of 25 megabit-per-second downloads and 3 Mbps uploads, nothing special in today's digital world but adequate for streaming a video or taking an online class. Moreover, officials say, another 650,000 people simply can't afford the service that's available to them. 

Those figures come as state and federal agencies have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on expanding broadband service. Yet in many places it's still painfully 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 make sure that everyone has access to at least minimum broadband speeds and that most people have much better service than that in the next five years. 

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

"While I voted to approve the entire package of proposed projects, I continue to have serious reservations about the funding scheme proposed by Bug Tussel. Their novel interpretation of a public-private partnership has the local government acting as a bank and guarantor for the private company," Nowak said.

"This is a risky endeavor for taxpayers and results in little to no risk for the private entity.  I don’t believe that is what the Legislature intended when they passed the law," she added.

Nowak said she would have preferred funding more projects that use fiber-optic-cable to deliver service directly to homes rather than wireless service that's typically much slower and less reliable.

It could cost several billion dollars to address all the broadband coverage gaps in the state, according to some in the industry. The grants are aimed at areas that are challenging to connect due to low population density or geography. 

In the last 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 have to be funded more than once because the original service was inadequate.  

"We're now going back and covering areas we've covered in grant rounds that weren't that long ago," Nowak said.