The Year of Broadband: Where state dollars are helping with internet projects

BELLEVILLE, Wis. — If you ask any school district, parent or student what major challenge impacts their ability to learn online, access to broadband internet tops the list.

The state knows that too. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation listed it as the top three priorities to get the state back to normal post-pandemic and Gov. Tony Evers has even named 2021 the “year of broadband,” with hopes to invest $200 million in infrastructure and grants. That money won’t be available until it passes the Legislature, but there are several programs still dolling out funding for internet that might be impacting your neighborhood.

Tierney Keyes lives in the Belleville School District, 16 miles from Camp Randall, and cannot get internet access. Her family uses satellite internet that cuts in and out and has made virtual learning nearly impossible.

“It’s extremely frustrating as a parent,” she told News 3 Now.

Heather Horton is a mom and teacher in southwest Wisconsin, where internet access can be scarce. She says teaching and learning from home has been a headache, when her district has been under quarantine.

“We’d have to take turns,” she said. “I was often doing my things as I was going to bed overnight, because we couldn’t be on the internet on the same time.”

Those are just two of the more than a dozen complaints News 3 Now received via social media when it comes to broadband coverage and learning or working from home. There are currently a couple of programs underway to help Wisconsin residents.

Federal dollars from the CARES Act is one of the latest programs to make a dent in Wisconsin’s internet problem. In December, more than $5 million went to 12 different projects across 11 counties — both to build broadband towers and dig more than 40 miles of fiber.

“About 10,000 homes that didn’t have broadband now have broadband now as a result of that CARES funding,” said Alyssa Kenney, director of digital access for Wisconsin’s Public Service Commission.

Wisconsin’s past biennial budget also set aside $50 million for broadband, the first half of which was award last year and the second half of which will be awarded this spring. While we don’t yet know where it will go, a glance at the number of applications shows the demand is widespread across the state. There are 124 applicants asking for $62.5 million, when there’s only $24 million to hand out.

The parents News 3 Now talked to already know demand is high and say that won’t change, even if online learning does.

“I think it [will continue to have] a huge impact, even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic,” Horton said.