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The Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association (WSTA) was founded in 1910 to represent local telephone companies offering voice service. More than a century later, our members remain committed to their customers and communities as they work to deploy broadband throughout Wisconsin.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as an internet service with a download speed of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speed of at least 3Mbps. Twice a year, broadband providers across the country submit information to the FCC that identifies the location, availability, and speed of their internet service. This FCC data is used to create the National Broadband Map.

Based on June 2019 data, which is the most recently available, the FCC National Broadband Map data shows:

• 92% of all Wisconsin residents have at least one terrestrial (DSL, Cable, Fiber or Fixed Wireless) broadband provider offering 25Mbps/3Mbps.
• 75% of rural Wisconsin residents have at least one terrestrial (DSL, Cable, Fiber or Fixed Wireless) broadband provider offering 25Mbps/3Mbps.

Using the same technologies (DSL, Cable, Fiber or Fixed Wireless), 98% of all Wisconsin residents and 94% of rural Wisconsin residents have internet service available at speeds of at least 10Mbps/1Mbps. However, additional investment is needed to bring broadband service to more rural residents.

The primary challenge in rural areas without 25Mbps/3Mbps service is low population density. Simply put, it is more expensive to serve rural communities when you have miles per customer as opposed to communities with customers per mile.

WSTA members are dedicated to reaching more rural customers with robust broadband offerings that meet and exceed the FCC definition of broadband.

In the 2019-2020 Legislative Session, WSTA supported legislation introduced by Senator Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Representative Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron) to incentivize rural broadband deployment through targeted property tax exemptions. The targeted tax exemptions are available for telephone company property used to provide broadband service in a rural or underserved area. With support from a broad coalition, the bill was signed into law on March 3, 2020 by Governor Tony Evers as 2019 Wisconsin Act 128. The new law complements other state and federal programs to promote rural broadband expansion.

On the state level, Wisconsin’s Broadband Expansion Grant Program received a record $48 million for the 2019-2021 biennium. In addition, Wisconsin’s voluntary Broadband Forward! Community and Telecommuter Forward! Community certifications are options for local governments interested in welcoming broadband investment and promoting broadband usage.

At the federal level, the FCC administers several programs to increase broadband availability in rural America. These programs include the Connect America Fund II (CAF II), Alternative Connect America Model (A-CAM) and A-CAM II:

• Wisconsin’s three largest telecommunications providers were eligible for CAF II. The six-year program, which ends in 2020, allocated $570 million in Wisconsin to AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier.
• Eleven Wisconsin companies elected to participate in A-CAM. Those providers will receive almost $300 million in FCC support over the life of the ten-year program.
• Nine Wisconsin companies are accepting A-CAM II support from the FCC. The nine providers will receive more than $160 million during the ten-year A-CAM II program.

On October 29, 2020, the FCC opened the reverse auction for phase one of the new Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF). The reverse auction will end on November 24, 2020. Nationwide, the RDOF will allocate $20.4 billion over ten years for broadband deployment in rural America. In Wisconsin, the RDOF auction winners will build broadband with minimum speeds of 25Mbps/3Mbps to 30,137 rural Wisconsin census blocks.

Moving forward, WSTA members will continue to prioritize and promote additional rural broadband deployment. Our member companies will explore every opportunity to collaborate with federal, state, and local partners for the benefit of our rural communities and customers.

— Esbeck is executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association.

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