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Broadband Advocates Worry WI Task Force Won't Be Effective

Wisconsin leaders have a goal of seeing all residents have access to broadband internet by 2025. (Adobe Stock)
Wisconsin leaders have a goal of seeing all residents have access to broadband internet by 2025. (Adobe Stock)
July 16, 2020

MADISON, Wis. - A task force is starting work on ways to further address broadband access issues in rural Wisconsin. But an advocacy group says the effort must address the issue of competition in order to be effective.

The Badger State consistently has ranked low when it comes to broadband coverage. And while state investments have ramped up, Gov. Tony Evers said the creation of the new task force is needed so the state can get a better handle on the access problem.

Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, says in Wisconsin companies like AT&T aren't forced enough to do more for underserved areas.

"That's the question for the future, not 'what does the task force do?' But is the Legislature willing to do things that are good for the state that might upset AT&T," says Mitchell.

Mitchell says policies that create more competition will lead to more investment in rural areas. But he says the focus should be on creating a bigger role for cooperatives to play, given their work in expanding electricity and telephone service in rural America decades ago.

The chair of the new task force anticipates that competition will be discussed, while noting that officials from companies such as AT&T are on the panel and will be part of the effort to find a solution.

The chairperson, Brittany Beyer, says a challenge is convincing companies to take a financial risk in investing in areas where there are very few customers. Mitchell says that's why it makes sense to appeal to cooperatives as part of the effort.

"And if you have a family that owns a local telephone company," says Mitchell, "and that's more common in the Midwest than many places, they're gonna make decisions on not only 'Is this profitable in a short enough time period?' but also, 'Am I doing right by the community?' "

The governor and task force members say the issue has more urgency now in light of access problems exacerbated by distance learning during the pandemic. Advocates say that problem also needs attention in urban areas, where there are also affordability concerns.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - WI