Broadband access in Wisconsin is essential. That’s the message Gov. Tony Evers sent during his State of the State address Jan. 12.
“This pandemic has underscored — and in some ways, exacerbated — the digital divide that exists across our state,” he said. “This pandemic has shown us firsthand that lack of access to high-speed internet continues to be a setback for kids, families and businesses across our state.”
His proposed 2021-23 biennial budget would invest nearly $200 million into broadband over the two years, five times the amount invested in the last three biennial budgets combined.
Currently, 124 projects have queued up for a chance at $24 million in broadband expansion grants through the state. It’s the highest request for grants in the state’s history, according to the Public Service Commission. Among the projects being considered for a 2021 grant is one that would bring improved broadband access to a slice of Douglas County that includes Gordon and Solon Springs.
Angela Botner of Solon Springs, who spearheaded the application process, expects to learn if it was approved or not by April.
“I sure hope we get it, but there are so many worthy projects out there,” she said.
The state’s broadband office sees requests that total more than double the funding available. Applicants often bring their projects to the PSC in phases to help make those projects more manageable in terms of funding assistance.
A recent report by Forward Analytics highlighted gaps and successes in broadband access throughout the state, based on 2019 data. In nine counties — Ashland, Clark, Douglas, Iron, Marinette, Price, Richland, Rusk, and Taylor — less than half of the rural population had access to broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second or more, the report found.
A PSC map of Douglas County shows large swaths where no internet service is available, and others where internet speeds are less than 3Mbps. The Forward Analytics survey found that 14.7% of the rural population in Douglas County only had access to service under 10Mpbs; 3.1% had none.
With education, business, telehealth visits and work all taking place over the digital highway simultaneously, speed matters. At a download speed of up to 4Mbps, a household would be able to browse the internet and receive low quality pre-recorded video and audio with one device, but if a second device was added, they would only be able to access email and text-based browsing.
At the 4-10Mbps level, one device could be used for streaming video, live video or gaming, but having a second device in use would reduce options to internet browsing and pre-recorded video; with three devices active, users would be able to access email and text-based browsing.
At the 10-25Mbps level, one device could take on multiple high-demand applications and large downloads, as well as video and gaming feeds, but as more devices are added, those capabilities decrease.
At download speeds of 25Mbps and above, high-demand use is possible with two devices simultaneously.
Douglas County was ranked 69 out of 72 counties for rural broadband access, according to the Forward Analytics survey. Yet the first time a broadband access grant was secured in Douglas County was 2020, when projects in the towns of Cloverland and Amnicon were funded. The grants have been available since 2014.
Access to education
When area school districts made the leap to at-home learning in March, the need for adequate broadband was thrown to the forefront. Districts scrambled to connect families to local internet providers; and libraries and schools boosted their Wi-Fi signals so students could access it laptops from the parking lot.
It continues to be a problem. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction began tracking digital equity for the 2020-2021 school year. According to the most recent data, collected Jan. 19, 3.2% of Superior School District students and 4% of Maple School District students had no internet access at home. The underlying reason for gap varies between the districts, however.
In Maple, nearly half of the students — 48% — have no access due to availability; in Superior, more than half of the students — 54.6% — lack internet access due to affordability.
The site also tracks performance data. According to DPI, 42% of Maple students have partially or completely unreliable internet access at home. Of those, 91% encountered interruptions and quality issues with streaming video, while the other 8.9% could not reliably stream video on their primary device. In Superior, 21.5% of students reported having unreliable internet at home. Once again, the majority, 86.7%, reported problems with video quality and interruptions.
Superior's director of information technology, Ryan Engstrom, said families are encouraged to explore free or reduced-cost internet through Charter Spectrum and the state’s Internet Discount Finder.
“In areas where that is not possible, the district utilizes 125 Wi-Fi hotspots with AT&T service,” Engstrom said. “ In areas where AT&T hotspots had poor service and Charter Internet was not an option, schools worked with families to provide alternative assignments and instruction methods.”
The Maple School District recently received a T-Mobile grant to provide up to 48 hot spots to families with children involved in online-only learning who lack adequate internet access. To apply for a hot spot, a family must qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch and pay a monthly fee of $15.
District administrator Sara Croney wrote the grant with the help of Brianne Nelson and Michael Hintzman after the problem with available internet was again highlighted during the district’s move to digital-only learning over the holidays. A number of elementary school students, who had been attending in-person classes five days a week, found they could not connect to the online classes.
“I know that this is a wonderful benefit for our families who qualify and have already filled out the free and reduced lunch form,” Croney said.
Currently, the district is providing free lunch to all students through a federal extension of the summer free meal program. Families would have to fill out the free- and reduced-price lunch application, which can be found on the school district website, to qualify for a hot spot.
As of Wednesday, Feb. 3, four Maple families had requested hot spots, and the first two devices had arrived at the district office.