Broadband Expansion an Ongoing Project

Whatever you think of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – and opinions range from economic nothing-burger to investment that prevented further economic harm – the economic stimulus enacted in 2009 will improve broadband access in Wisconsin.

While a follow-up stimulus bill is a tenuous proposition, proposed changes to the Universal Service Fund could provide a steady stream of funding necessary to complete the job. The progress Wisconsin is making with expanding broadband access to rural areas will become more evident in 2012 as the approval phase ends and the construction phase kicks in.


Digital democracy

Telecommunications executives promote greater broadband connectivity as a societal equalizer and an economic development tool, but depending on the survey, Wisconsin ranks only 43rd or 47th in broadband availability. It's easy to see why small businesses in rural Wisconsin would covet expanded broadband coverage – the opportunity to expand their markets and customer bases improves their business prospects. The telecommuting opportunities of business professionals and the telemedicine programs of hospitals also would be enhanced.

But why should people in Madison care about broadband strength in rural Wisconsin? If a resident of an affected area in Valders wanted to take an online course offered by UW-Madison, he or she is out of luck, and the university misses out on revenue. If they have the skill set to fill an open position in Madison, one that a local employer finds difficult to fill, they have no way of knowing the job was posted online, meaning both prospective employee and employer have lost an opportunity.

Thanks in part to the public-private partnership made possible by stimulus grant funding under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, that will happen less frequently. Drew Petersen, director of external affairs and communications for TDS Telecom, said that following a series of environmental impact surveys and state historical preservation reviews, most of TDS' broadband stimulus grant projects will be fully built in 2012.

TDS filed 44 stimulus applications in 20 states, receiving $85.9 million in broadband expansion grants that will be leveraged with $28.6 million in company funds. The Wisconsin allocation is somewhere north of $30 million, including $10 million in private capital from TDS. In partnership with 12 smaller telecom vendors, that will serve just under 9,000 mostly rural customers in sparsely populated areas near communities like Fennimore and Medford.

While telecom providers have been accused of deploying stimulus funds in areas that represent low-hanging fruit, Petersen called them "very rural" areas that are not traditionally the "town center" of the telecommunications industry. "They are truly the outlying areas of villages and towns and places that obviously are harder to connect," he said.

TDS was one of several grant recipients in Wisconsin. In addition to $31 million received by Chequamegon Communications in Bayfield, and $9 million to Baldwin Telecom, they also include $22.9 million for the state Department of Administration to deploy 203 miles of new fiber connections to the BadgerNet Converged Network.

In a grant that prompted a court challenge, the University of Wisconsin-Extension received more than $38 million to extend broadband connections to 182 community "anchor" institutions. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Peter Anderson has dismissed a suit against the UW-Extension broadband project, which is controversial because it uses taxpayer money to compete with private telecommunications carriers. The Wisconsin Independent Telecommunications System had filed the suit in July, and could appeal Anderson's ruling.

The stimulus grants will help telecom vendors chip away at the remaining unserved areas, but it will take more public dollars to achieve ubiquitous broadband coverage. The Federal Communications Commission's efforts to revamp the Universal Service Fund, which was established to improve rural telephone service, could advance rural broadband. Under an FCC proposal, the USF would provide $4.3 billion annually to expand rural broadband.
Brian Rybarik, an administrator in the telecommunications division of Wisconsin Public Service Commission, said with the USF reform proposal, another stimulus measure would not be necessary for broadband.

"Larger carriers will be able to access broadband support funding through the USF," he said. "I think you'll see the impact of that reform and the stimulus package pile on top of one another."

Gimme 4Gs

The most promising new telecommunications development is the transition from 3G to 4G wireless, which will significantly increase the speed of data transmission. Thad Nation, executive president of Wired Wisconsin and founder of Nation Consulting in Milwaukee, said 4G wireless, with broadband speeds offered via a cellular connection, could make the need to put fiber optic wires in the ground unnecessary for average users. Said Nation: "When you start looking at something like 4G cellular service, which has the ability to provide good speed and cover these areas that will probably never get wires, it has the ability to skip a whole generation of technology."

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