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How to Fix Rural Broadband

Bad internet service is no surprise to rural residents in Wisconsin as 40% lack access to high speed internet. From 2013 to 2019, Wisconsin spent $20 million in grants to expand broadband. During that same time period, Minnesota spent ten times as much. The result: only 16% of Minnesota’s rural areas lack high speed internet.


This year, the pandemic has created a new urgency to fix the problem. While the debate swirls in the state legislature around which type of broadband to fund—wireless or fiber optics—small cities and towns have decided to tackle the problem on their own.


Two municipalities opted to build and provide their own internet services. Reedsburg invested in fiber optics in the 1990s and now provides internet services for $50 per month for a home. Waupaca offers wireless internet services to 300 businesses and homes. But Waupaca and Reedsburg are unusual in Wisconsin, as they do all the things a telecommunications company does, such as billing, staffing a customer call center, and installation.


Antigo, Richland Center, Shawano, and Sun Prairie took a slightly different route. These municipalities built their own infrastructure and then contracted with private companies to manage them. Shawano and Antigo were unable to contract with private companies at rates that covered initial investment costs.


At the state level, grants can subsidize the cost to expand and improve broadband. State law requires municipalities to find a private partner in order to receive a grant. Governor Evers attempted to expand broadband in the state budget, but Republicans deleted those provisions.


Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, a Minnesota-based think tank that helps communities with their telecommunications, says that residents need to push their elected officials to move on broadband. Like the Rural Electrification Act, government support may be necessary to improve access to internet services in rural areas.

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