The Legislative Study Committee on Rural Broadband was created in response to the lack of broadband access throughout parts of Wisconsin. This lack of access has become a priority for legislators because people who live in areas with little or no broadband lose valuable opportunities related to the delivery of goods, services and education. With this in mind, the members of the committee were charged to review the Wisconsin Broadband Grant Program that exists to encourage development of broadband infrastructure in Wisconsin.
Members were tasked to assess whether the current program has encouraged the creation of new broadband infrastructure in areas with the most need. They also had to consider whether appropriate criteria were used to evaluate projects and explore alternatives to prioritize projects with the most need.
The committee met three times since August and has made quick work of their assignment, already reviewing a fifth draft bill. One change related to eligible applicants and other minor changes to this draft will be made, and then it is expected the committee will recommend legislation for consideration during the 2017-2018 legislative session.
The bill would do the following:
- Requires an annual set aside for the Broadband Expansion Grant Program $1.5 million of the funding that the Public Service Commission (PSC) currently receives through the Universal Service Fund assessment for its existing programs, beginning in FY 2019-20. The PSC will not have to increase what they currently collect for the fund.
- Adds a definition of “unserved area” to the Broadband Expansion Grant Program statute, to be considered eligible for the grant. Currently the statute only addresses being underserved, served by fewer than 2 broadband service providers. The definition of unserved area will be included and means an area of this state that is not served by an internet service provider offering internet service that is all of the following:
- Fixed wireless service or wired service.
- Provided at actual speeds of at least 20 percent of the upload and download speeds for high-speed, switched, broadband telecommunications capability as designated by the federal communications commission in its inquiries regarding advanced telecommunications capability under 47 USC 1302 (b).
- Changes the criteria for evaluating applications and awarding grants. Statute currently states, “The criteria shall give priority to projects that include matching funds, that involve public-private partnerships, that affect areas with no broadband service providers, that are scalable, that promote economic development, or that affect a large geographic area or a large number of underserved individuals or communities.”
This bill changes the language to, “The criteria shall give priority to projects that include matching funds, that involve public-private partnerships, that affect unserved areas, that are scalable, that promote economic development, that will not result in delaying the provision of broadband service to areas neighboring areas to be served by the proposed project, or that affect a large geographic area or a large number of underserved individuals or communities. When evaluating grant applications under this section, the commission shall consider the impacts of the proposed projects on the ability of individuals to access health care services from home and the cost of those services, the ability of students to access education opportunities at home, and the degree to which proposed projects would duplicate existing broadband infrastructure, information about the presence of which is provided to the PSC by the applicant or another person within a time period designated by the PSC.”
- Allows the PSC to designate areas of the state as unserved areas, and these areas will be given priority when being considered for a grant application.
If the committee approves the final draft, and the legislature and governor are supportive, the changes would become effective on the day after publication with the exception of the appropriation. The fiscal component would take effect on July 1, 2019 or the second day after publication of the 2019-2021 biennial budget act, whichever is later.