Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Pandemic Worsens State’s Broadband Gap

Rural areas and urban poor left out. Evers calls 2021 the "Year of Broadband Access."

By - Jan 25th, 2021 02:17 pm
Laptop. (CC0 Public Domain)

Laptop. (CC0 Public Domain)

New reports documenting how COVID-19 widened the gap between Wisconsin’s broadband “haves” and “have nots” show why Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proclaimed 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access” and promised to include about $200 million in his budget to close that gap.

The Governor’s Commission on Rural Prosperity, UW-Extension researchers and Forward Analytics Director Dale Knapp have all reached the same conclusions: Rural communities, and low-income households, without 25 megabytes per second (25 Mgbps) of internet access are falling significantly behind in educating and retaining the next generation of workers, in starting and nurturing new businesses, in maintaining home values and keeping residents healthy.

In his online State of the State speech, Evers said: “More than 430,000 people who make up 25% of our state’s rural population lack access to high-speed Internet. Our state ranks 36th in the country for accessibility in rural areas.

“My 2021-23 biennial budget will invest nearly $200 million over the biennium into broadband…

“It’s 2021, folks. Having access to high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. Every Wisconsinite … should have access to reliable, high-speed internet. Period.”

The consensus of experts if that broadband is now one of the infrastructure necessities no community can thrive without, just like roads, electricity, K-12 schools and phone service.

But the reports of UW-Extension and Knapp, whose Forward Analytics is a division of the Wisconsin Counties Association, list several rural counties that are broadband deprived. They may have 10 Mgbps of internet access, but that’s not enough anymore.

“In Richland County, only 35% of households had Broadband speed of 25Mbps available, making it the county most in need of greater access to Broadband for rural residents and service upgrades,” Knapp wrote in his report, Broadband in Rural Wisconsin. Jackson, Marinette, Forest and Douglas counties also “fare poorly,” in having broadband access that reaches the 25Mbps standard, Knapp added. UW-Extension’s report added Price, Sawyer, Rusk and Ashland counties to that list.

“Broadband access is closely related to population density and income levels, meaning the most rural and the lowest-income regions generally have the least access. For example, in urban Wisconsin more than 95% of households have Broadband access whereas, in the most rural counties, just 63% have access,” noted UW-Extension researchers.

Republicans represent many of those rural areas, although Democratic Senate leader Janet Bewley‘s district is in northwest Wisconsin.

But many low-income residents of Milwaukee and Madison also simply can’t afford the $40 per month or more it may cost for internet access, the UW Extension report added. “The income divide across Broadband access is perhaps starker than the rural-urban divide.” And that broadband “poverty trap appears to be deepening” because of the pandemic, the report warned.
Lack of broadband has especially hurt K-12 students in small school districts that closed in mid-March because of COVID-19. A Department of Public Instruction survey found that 13 school districts could not offer online instruction, for example.

Knapp found that in Wisconsin school districts with fewer than 500 students, half reported internet problems last year and more than 25% of their students had no internet at home.

Having access to broadband also makes people healthier. Broadband “is linked to better business performance, including rural entrepreneurship and farm profits.… Broadband also corresponds to improved health outcomes,” the UW Extension report noted.

Why? “The inability to Facetime, Skype or Zoom with friends and family while isolated can lead to higher rates of mental stress. Such stress can, in turn, compound other health issues,” the report warned.

And the pandemic-caused explosion of telemedicine leaves those without internet in their homes undiagnosed and untreated, as the Governor’s Commission on Rural Prosperity found: “Many medical facilities have gone virtual for services not requiring physical contact with patients; thus, rural residents lacking Broadband are shut out of most preventive and routine health care, which may lead to more acute and life-threatening conditions.”

Evers will soon outline how that $200 million should be spent to close the broadband divide.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Public Service Commission, which reported last week that federal COVID-19 aid had given 20,000 more Wisconsin homes and businesses access to broadband, are expected to be charged with that goal. A blueprint may also come from the Governor’s Task Force on Rural Broadband Access.

A WEDC report summarized the challenge: “Fixing broadband in Wisconsin is not a moon shot; it’s not insurmountable. But it is critical to economic development and recovery and must happen now.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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