This week, Gov. Tony Evers announced the formation of a broadband task force charged with promoting broadband expansion and researching policies and projects to meet the state’s connectivity goals. One goal for the state ranked 30th in the nation for broadband coverage, according to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR), is to bring affordable broadband access to all residents by 2025.
“The pandemic itself has really given us an opportunity to think through how important broadband is to the people that are working from home, telemedicine, virtual classrooms, and so on,” Evers told WPR. “So, it has re-engaged us and something that we knew already. And that is that broadband is an important utility as important as electricity.”
The Governor’s Executive Order states, “all Wisconsinites should have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy.” It goes on to say that “broadband access is an essential catalyst for economic development, rural prosperity, and community health across the state of Wisconsin.”
Appointed to solve the state’s broadband challenges, the task force is comprised of two dozen members, including telecoms, tribal representatives, lawmakers, and educators, reported WPR. Each year, the task force will submit a report to the governor with recommendations regarding barriers to access, inequities in delivering high-speed services, issues with funding, and more.
Currently, 410,000 Wisconsin residents lack high-speed internet access. Of that number, 398,000 live in rural areas. According to Theron Rutyna, IT director for the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and member of the task force, Indian County is among the rural Wisconsin areas that have experienced the most significant challenges with broadband access.
“Our reservations are rural and difficult to get to. They have laws that are different [from] the municipalities around them,” said Rutyna. “Providers of broadband and other communication services have been absent over the years due to many factors — some in their control, some out of their control, but mostly around funding.”
According to Brittany Beyer, executive director of Grow North Regional Economic Development Corporation and the task force chair, work needs to be done to close the digital divide for students. “We have school districts in our area where 35 percent of the students don’t have access to broadband,” she said.
Evers, trying to remedy the connectivity gap, ensured that $24 million was made available in 2020, to expand access to areas with a lower population density. The funds came from the Broadband Expansion Grant Program through The Wisconsin Broadband Office, reported WPR.
Of broadband, Evers noted, “It is no longer a luxury. It’s important for schooling. It’s important for our businesses and our economy, and, especially, it’s important for rural Wisconsin because that’s where the lack of access is.”
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