By State Senator Julie Lassa
If you live in one of Wisconsin’s rural communities, it can seem like the digital revolution is passing you by. Many of the cutting-edge features of the internet, from web-based phone services to streaming video to cloud-based computing, simply don’t function well over a DSL line or a dial-up connection, and yet for many Wisconsin communities, this is the best internet access they have. A recent report from technology company Speedtest says that the average internet download speed in Wisconsin was 28.59 megabits per second, only slightly more than half the national average. In fact, the report ranked Wisconsin 49th among the states and the District of Colombia in internet download speed.
And we can’t use the prevalence of rural areas in Wisconsin as an excuse for our poor internet speeds. The number one state in the report was very rural Kansas, with an average speed of 82 MPS – nearly three times as fast as Wisconsin’s. Our state’s telecommunication companies and cooperatives have been working to bring faster internet to more areas, but the state has not provided the active leadership we need to stay competitive.
This isn’t simply a matter of not being able to enjoy online video games or stream your favorite TV shows. When the Senate Committee on Economic Development, of which I am ranking member, held a series of listening sessions around the state this past fall, we heard from business leaders in many rural communities that the lack of high-speed internet prevents tech-dependent businesses from locating or expanding in their communities. Even companies that don’t rely on broadband are affected, because poor internet access makes it harder to recruit skilled employees to their communities. Time and again, business leaders told us that making a real investment in expanding broadband in rural areas would be one of the most important ways we could promote job creation in Wisconsin.
Unfortunately, Governor Walker and the Republican majority in the State Legislature haven’t taken that message seriously. One of the Governor’s first acts back in 2012 was to turn away nearly $23 million in federal grant funding that would have allowed the state to expand fiber optic broadband networks to 82 schools and 385 library facilities. An estimated 150 full-time jobs could have been created by this project. The most recent state budget contains only $6 million for broadband deployment, spread over four years.
This is just a drop in the bucket, especially compared to what our neighbors in Minnesota are doing. According to the publication Government Technology, the Minnesota Office of Broadband Development has already managed $30 million in broadband investment in that state since it launched in January, 2014. The legislature there recently approved a $10 million annual investment in broadband expansion, and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has proposed investing $100 million of the state’s nearly $2 billion budget surplus in bringing broadband to rural communities. This program has the potential of bringing high-speed Internet access to tens of thousands of rural homes and businesses.
For businesses and rural communities to compete in the digital era, we can’t continue to be near the bottom in fast internet access. In order to become economically competitive with our neighboring states, we have to commit to making a meaningful investment in our broadband infrastructure, the digital highway that carries the promise of economic growth and higher paying jobs both today and in the future.