Wisconsin wary of giving state funding to big broadband providers who already have federal funding

The Racine County Eye reports…

Big telecommunications companies including Frontier and AT&T are asking the state for millions in the most recent round of broadband expansion grants, according to the list of applications submitted to the Wisconsin Public Service Commission.

Many of these companies have already received tens of millions from federal programs to improve service in Wisconsin and across the country. Critics are wary of giving them more public cash.

“My fear is that companies like Frontier, Charter and AT&T will simply use this money to substitute for their existing capital expenses,” Barry Orton, a professor emeritus of telecommunications at the UW-Madison, wrote in an email. “As they have multiple times in the past, they could cherry-pick service areas based on revenue expectations, leaving their less lucrative Wisconsin customers unserved and underserved yet again.”

Past federal programs like the FCC’s Connect America Fund distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to large telecommunications companies with the intention of upgrading service in areas without high-speed internet. But the programs were poorly designed and poorly enforced, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, a Minnesota-based think tank that aids communities’ telecommunications efforts. For example, the Connect America Fund only required that projects provide internet speeds of 10 megabits per second of download speed and 1 megabit per second of upload speed, a standard that has quickly become obsolete.

Burying fiberoptic lines in the ground for high-speed internet is expensive, and national companies have little financial incentive to make that investment in rural areas with few potential customers. Experts like Orton and Mitchell accuse those big telecommunications companies of using the federal funds in more populous profitable areas rather than rural ones, saying the federal grant programs were too lax.

Some of the players may be different in Minnesota but the federal funding isn’t.  Right now the frustration with federal funding in Minnesota is in RDOF fund limbo areas such as Le Sueur County where LTD Broadband has been given the opportunity to get federal funding but it hasn’t yet been awarded but for the last year it has had “dibs” on that area and therefore locals were unable to apply for state funding.

Part of the frustration on the frontlines is having experience similar to Wisconsin with providers who have received federal funding that has not improved home access for their customers. If the wait were the worry, there would be some frustration but a wait for an award similar to those that have not panned out in the past is like Waiting for Godot.

This entry was posted in Funding, MN, Policy, Vendors by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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