Broadband roundtable explores how Evers budget proposal will aid rural areas
Broadband is a big focus of the Evers administration's budget proposal for the 2021-23 biennium, quadrupling the current investment in broadband infrastructure at $200,000. Even with all that money, experts in the field still have to figure out the best ways to invest it.
A roundtable on the challenges rural areas face on lack of access to high-speed internet, or to a connection at all, was held in early April with several members of the agriculture industry in Wisconsin. Randy Romanski, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, led the roundtable and explained that DATCP is deeply involved in the effort to get broadband out to those who need it most.
"Broadband is no longer a luxury, it's a necessity. For our state's $104.8 billion agriculture industry, which occurs all over the state of Wisconsin, broadband is a ... really important tool to have," Romanski said. "Even for those who aren't farming, broadband access is a critical need, especially now that events and meetings are held online, students are doing homework remotely."
Jaron McCallum, director of broadband at the state's Public Service Commission, said a high-speed connection is what many Wisconsin communities need, rural or otherwise, in order to be revitalized economically and socially. It's especially important for the state's small businesses, he said, since the advent of e-commerce and especially the increase in online shopping over the course of the pandemic.
"The Wisconsin Broadband Office's vision is really such that all Wisconsinites have the information technology capacity needed to fully participate in society. Within that vision, I would say that our mission is to make high-performance broadband more accessible, resilient, competitive and affordable in Wisconsin," McCallum said. "Broadband is truly a catalyst for vibrant communities."
PSC is also looking into equity and inclusion initiatives, McCallum said, that will help low-income families afford high-speed internet, especially where there's little or no competition and no incentive to lower prices. The PSC will also work on digital literacy – learning how to use the internet safely and effectively – and offer technical support to local governments who may be lacking staff who specialize in technology.
Dan Smith, president and CEO of Cooperative Network, said many of his member cooperatives report a need for high-speed access across hundreds or thousands of acres of fields in order to use precision agriculture technology. Instant internal communication is another concern, required for things like weather updates over large crop areas.
"It's really not your father's cooperative anymore. We all know about precision agriculture and the demands that that places on broadband, (and) just the geographical expansion of the service area," Smith said. "It is essential for internal communication and monitoring changing weather conditions so they can, at the last moment, divert application equipment to another area if it happens to be raining on one side."
And even with the pandemic slowly receding, Smith said 30-40% of the nation's workforce may not return to working full-time in the office, but instead at home. Plus, broadband quality is becoming more and more important to young homeowners looking for somewhere to live, while older generations already living in rural areas may not mind as much.
Joe Ruth, legal counsel for the Wisconsin Towns Association, said the extra support from the state is crucial as many small towns just don't have the staff capacity, resources or know-how to execute broadband plans entirely by themselves.
"Certainly we have great local officials in the state of Wisconsin, but they don't have those connections to the industry, and they don't have that professional grant writing experience and so forth," Ruth said. "So, some of the programs ... like the technical assistance pilot program ... the leadership grant program ... are so essential in helping our local officials actually make this a reality."
Ruth also mentioned it's important to think about investments for the short term versus the long term. While we have quality fiber and cable at our hands right now, we could be seeing huge leaps in development for even faster internet access five or ten years down the road. The question is whether we invest a lot of money now and some later, or some now and a lot later, he said.
Mark O'Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association, said counties often have more resources available than towns do, but they still face the same challenges in broadband access. He also agreed with Ruth on the uncertainties of current and future technology.
"We were almost paralyzed by the what-ifs. To have knowledgeable people, let's say at the state level, that are holding the hands of the private sector people that are living and breathing this on a daily basis, that could be helpful ... so that when we spend whatever $2 billion ... we're assisting our rural communities," O'Connell said. "Whatever technology we're using, there's going to be something better in 10 years."
Wisconsin Farmers Union executive director Julie Bomar said she hears stories about the challenges of broadband access from WFU members every day. She said many farmers she knows want to do more direct marketing to consumers and independent food sheds, but going down that route often requires a stable internet connection where you can connect to customers.
"We're really glad to hear the governor's budget is addressing some of those technical assistance barriers that exist for townships and our farms, but also really trying to use small businesses and cooperatives in particular to create the highway that would get us to that last mile. It's critical," Bomar said.
The broadband problem is exacerbated when it comes to indigenous communities and nations as well, Bomar added. She said up to 60% of Wisconsin's indigenous population lacks access to high-speed internet.
Ashley Gausman, a member of the board of directors at the Wisconsin Agri-Business Association, said many Wisconsinites have to travel out of their homes to find reliable internet access, especially in western Wisconsin where she lives. An unreliable connection can also cause serious losses for businesses, she said.
"As soon as you get off the main road or get out of town, your options are greatly diminished and the speed at which those options function is very very slow. ... Some of our members are ... located out in the country and if their internet goes down, it's tied into many of their operational (systems) – billing, their inventories, their entire system," Gausman said. "It's just very critical to their business."
Broadband should be treated as a utility, like electricity, Gausman said.