A pair of bills set for hearings Thursday could deliver more state funding for rural broadband grants, but skeptics believe grant criteria created by one of the bills could be too limiting to help many residents in remote areas.
Assembly Bill 798, introduced in late January by Reps. Romaine Quinn, R-Rice Lake, and Ed Brooks, R-Reedsburg, would increase annual funding for Wisconsin’s Broadband Expansion Grant Program from $1.5 million to $10 million. A companion bill introduced last week, however, would direct the state’s Public Service Commission to give priority in awarding grants to projects that promote economic development or municipalities that achieve a certification proposed in the bill.
The companion, AB 820, creates a “Broadband Forward” certification for municipalities that is intended to limit fees and streamline the application process for service providers. To be eligible, municipalities must enact an ordinance that designates a single contact for applicants to work with and provide a timeline for consideration of applications, specific criteria for approval or denial of applications, and enables electronic filing.
It would also prohibit application fees exceeding $100 and bar municipalities from discriminating against providers seeking access to public right-of-ways.
Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, said he wants to hear whether access to high-speed broadband Internet at educational buildings is considered “economic development” at Thursday’s hearing before the Assembly Committee on Mining and Rural Development. But Considine said he’s largely concerned that the bill would place too many restrictions on local governments.
“I’m scared that we’re dictating a whole lot as a state to local municipalities,” he said. “While I support rural broadband like crazy and wanted to sign on just based on the title, I think there’s enough restrictions in there that make me hesitate.”
Quinn and Brooks both said the legislation is intended to reduce fiscal and bureaucratic barriers companies face in providing service to rural areas.
“There aren’t a lot of people fighting to provide service in rural areas, but it does give assurance that these communities are making a good-faith effort to get broadband,” Brooks said.
Quinn, whose district is in rural northwestern Wisconsin, acknowledged that even $10 million a year falls well short of fixing the state’s rural broadband infrastructure, but called the proposal a conversation starter. He said he doesn’t see the economic development provision as an obstacle for residents in underserved parts of the state, but added he’s open to amending the bill if testimony warrants.
“Obviously, hailing from a rural district, our intent is not to prevent people from getting service,” Quinn said. “The bills’ intent is to make sure everyone is ready to go and everyone is able to attain this money.”
Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, lauded the bill for prohibiting “unreasonable” fees on service providers. Some of the Telecommunications Association’s member companies have seen right-of-way access fees as high as $5 per foot, making already expensive projects less feasible, he said.
“When you have a project that is looking to invest in a fiber route that’s 10,000 feet long, a $50,000 invoice from a local government seems to cross the line between reasonable and unreasonable. … This will absolutely improve the efficiency of those investments,” Esbeck said.
Brooks said he’s confident AB 820 can pass before the end of the legislative session, but said the funding increase may fall to the next biennial budget because of the fiscal items currently before the legislature.