Taken for Granted: Still a Long Way to Go for Rural Broadband

Andy Lewis is not the kind of guy to look a gift horse in the mouth.

But the UW-Extension professor takes a realistic view of the recently announced federal grant to expand fiber optic broadband in Wisconsin. While he's pleased the state will get $28.7 million in federal stimulus money to expand broadband infrastructure in rural schools and libraries, he knows it amounts to a down payment.

"We could have gotten 10 times that amount of this grant," he said, and still not cover the state's rural broadband needs.

Suffice to say, more broadband competition is needed in rural areas. In urban areas, there is a good level of competition by private broadband providers, but there are still large parts of Wisconsin that, due to the economics of providing service, are either under served or not served at all. As a result, Lewis believes Wisconsin is falling behind surrounding states in the number of high speed lines.

The grant, issued as part of a Phase I granting process, would expand broadband to about 467 "anchor institutions" in 380 largely rural communities through the BadgerNet Converged Network (BCN) infrastructure. The money, along with a 20% state match, is supposed to bring high-speed broadband to places where it's cost prohibitive for the likes of TDS Telecom and other providers.

By definition, it's a long-term economic development investment, though short-term economic benefits will be realized as local telephone companies install more fiber optic cable over the next 18 months.

This may not be Wisconsin's only successful grant application that seeks to tap $7.2 billion in funds allocated for broadband expansion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Lewis is part of a contingent that still hopes to land $28 to $30 million in Phase II funds for a five-city pilot program that would establish Community Area Networks (CANs) in Superior, the Chippewa Valley, Menomonee Nation, Wausau, and Platteville.

According to Lewis, the BCN pledges to connect all school districts, but what that really means is they have made a commitment to connect all high schools. In the Superior area, there are remote school districts that have little or no connectivity. "There is still a lot of work to be done," he noted. "Our project with UW Extension is going to focus on creating Community Area Networks that connect those institutions and expand those connections beyond, in this example, the high school.

"If you can imagine, we've got kids coming up through remote elementary and middle schools that have little or no connectivity, that are then thrown into the high school system with kids that have had that exposure at home and in school since kindergarten. I can't imagine the inequity that creates."

For Lewis, the grant application is due March 15, and his group has been working frantically to coordinate the five pilot communities. There is an educational component and a fiber component, but the emphasis is on trying to create community solutions to broadband and create the connections needed to effectively manage fiber networks by pooling slim technology resources.

In that sense, the five-pilot CAN would build on improvements to the BCN. "We see them as being complementary," Lewis said. "In fact, in our grant application, we connect to that effort."

If funds are awarded, and if the pilots are successful, Lewis said the concept could be replicated in communities statewide.

Other Wisconsin applications have made it through the Phase I due diligence phase, meaning they havenÕt received an award or been ruled out, including a CAN for Madison.

"I've been amazed at the detail that's been required in this application," Lewis said, noting that his group scaled back its initial application to focus on a pilot, rather than a statewide approach. "It's a little bit overwhelming. We think we've got a good team of grant writers and the right people and the right communities, but this has been a ton of work."

The BCN already provides broadband video and data services to more than 1,900 public-sector schools, libraries, and governmental agencies that have gone beyond lower-speed copper connections with fiber optics. Rather than making sure more people have broadband, however, the BCN expansion could simply create a more redundant connection in government and university-owned networks.

In any case, future federal funds will be needed to complete what probably is a 10- to 20-year project. "This [BCN grant] would be a step in the right direction, and everybody that I know of that has been involved in broadband in Wisconsin is excited to hear the news," Lewis said, "but what people need to recognize is that it's not the complete solution. It's part of the solution."

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