Wisconsin makes $100M available for broadband expansion and more federal money is on the way

Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday the state will make $100 million available as part of a new round of grants to expand broadband internet statewide. The announcement comes as Wisconsin is expected to receive an additional $100 million for broadband expansion under the recently passed $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill.

“Whether it’s going to school, working from home, or running a small business, broadband is essential to ensuring our families, communities, and our state bounce back from this pandemic even better than we were before it hit,” said Evers in a statement.

Evers declared 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access,” and Wisconsin has been witnessing significant levels of investment to expand high-speed internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state Public Service Commission recently awarded $100 million in funding as part of $1.9 trillion in COVID-19 relief under the American Rescue Plan Act.

The grants announced Tuesday are part of $129 million set aside for broadband expansion under the 2021-23 budget. State and federal funds awarded since 2019 are expanding internet access to more than 300,000 homes and businesses, according to the governor’s office. Applications for the latest round of state grants can be found on the PSC website beginning Dec. 1.

On Monday, Evers announced the state would see another $100 million under the infrastructure bill passed by Congress. The legislation provides $65 billion to expand broadband coverage nationwide.

“It’ll be another significant investment, pushing us closer to that countdown in that finish line towards statewide broadband coverage,” said Kristy Nieto, an administrator of the division of digital access, consumer and environmental affairs at the PSC.

The infrastructure bill also includes $2.75 billion in funding that would allow the state to implement plans to promote digital equity, inclusion and literacy. The legislation also provides $14.2 billion nationwide for the Affordable Connectivity Fund, and around 22 percent of state residents will be eligible for benefits. The bill also makes the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program a permanent offering, which provides a $30 discount on broadband service for qualifying low-income households.

Sign up for daily news!

Stay informed with WPR’s email newsletter.

Nieto said Wisconsin plans to apply additional funding under the infrastructure bill that will become available based on the number of unserved households in each state. Nearly 400,000 people currently lack high-speed internet statewide, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

But the actual figure is likely higher. The FCC collects data on the number of people served by census block, so if even one person has high-speed internet, the entire census block is considered to have access to broadband coverage. But, Nieto noted that the state’s also been investing in many broadband projects that take up to several years to build.

“We have a lot of broadband expansion activity going on around the state right now through what the state has invested and also through what the federal government has invested and what providers and communities are building,” said Nieto. “So, those numbers of households in the process of being connected are also significant.”

Under the last grant round, the PSC received 242 applications that requested more than $440 million for internet expansion. Nieto is hopeful the additional funding will expand on state efforts to close the gap in coverage statewide, especially in sparsely populated rural areas that are costly to serve.

Providers say it’s often difficult to justify the business case for expansion in rural areas where there are fewer customers who are more spread out over what can be challenging terrain at times.

The State Broadband Expansion Program has awarded $78 million to expand high-speed internet and funded 279 projects through the last fiscal year since it was launched in 2014 under former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Wisconsin has already been awarded $1.45 billion in federal funding to support broadband projects, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau.