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OPINION  What year is this? One might quickly answer it’s 2021. But Wis. Gov. Tony Evers also has declared this as the Year of Broadband Access in Wisconsin. The declaration is exciting and important in more ways than one.

For starters, Evers’ budget includes a historic $200 million investment to improve Wisconsin’s broadband infrastructure – this is five times the amount invested in the 2013, 2015 and 2017 budgets combined. The governor is also directing a significant portion of infrastructure funding from the federal American Rescue Plan toward expanding broadband access.

The Year of Broadband Access highlights the opportunity to bring legislators and constituents together around one issue that will make a big difference. I’ve heard from colleagues on both sides of the aisle that this must be done. I’ve heard from my Republican colleagues that they like the ideas I proposed this past session. That’s something to build on. We may find that we can actually do things if we work together on this important project.

Evers’ recent budget-listening session on bolstering Wisconsin’s infrastructure reminded so many of us why we must focus our efforts on expanding broadband. The Federal Communications Commission reports there are more than 430,000 people in rural Wisconsin who lack access to high-speed internet; that’s about 25 percent of our rural population. I’d even say it’s much more than that if they’re relying on what internet-service providers are reporting. One of the biggest problems is the questionable mapping based on census blocks. If an internet-service provider reports that one house or business in a census block has access, then the entire census block is counted as having access. That’s why I’ve been pushing for honest mapping and greater accountability.

We need the Wisconsin Legislature to remove roadblocks for municipalities to expand broadband. Current law prohibits municipalities from offering internet access without having an internet-service provider providing it. That’s problematic because private services need to show a profit – and they’re not interested in rural areas with small population density. The governor borrowed an idea from my Better Broadband legislative package by removing that restriction; municipalities that aren’t currently served could make the investment to provide broadband to their residents. As I’ve suggested repeatedly, municipal governments don’t want to be in the business of managing the service, but they could own the fiber that an internet-service provider leases to become that provider.

Wisconsin currently has a broadband-expansion grant program, which provides funding for projects in underserved and unserved areas. But it’s woefully underfunded and provides just enough to expand access at a snail’s pace. In the most recent budget cycle the Legislature invested $54 million for the program. In his budget Evers proposes directing almost $150 million into the grant program.

Internet affordability is a challenge that is often overlooked. For too many families the cost is just not within their budget after rent, food and other basic necessities. Evers’ budget includes $40 million to create an Internet Assistance Program just for that reason. The program would reduce costs and make internet services affordable for tens of thousands of reduced-income families throughout Wisconsin. The budget also creates a Broadband Line Extension grant program, which will reduce the cost of expensive line extensions from residences to existing broadband infrastructure.

It’s become more obvious during the past year that internet access isn’t just a luxury; it’s a necessity. Broadband expansion efforts go beyond our kids logging on for class, shopping online and streaming movies. Now we use the internet to access health care, pay bills and do our jobs. High-speed internet is a must if we want the next generation to have the option of living in the splendor of rural Wisconsin.

I’m just as excited at the possibility of legislators coming together to work on this critical issue, which will improve our way of life and strengthen our economy. Imagine where this might lead us. We may discover the political process of working together that citizens have been asking for.

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Jeff Smith of Brunswick represents the 31st District of Wisconsin as a member of the Democratic Party.

This article originally ran on Content Exchange