The best thing state leaders can do for Wisconsin’s rural economy this year is commit more attention and resources to high-speed internet.
That message came through loud and clear during the fall election campaign, when dozens of candidates for the statehouse from across south-central Wisconsin met with the State Journal editorial board, seeking our endorsement. Voters were stressing the need for faster digital connections so local businesses could sell products around the globe, so schoolchildren could do their homework, and so farmers could operate high-tech equipment, the candidates told us.
Republicans and Democrats alike said they were committed to the effort. Now it’s time for them to deliver.
Gov. Scott Walker recently proposed increasing funding for faster internet, called broadband, by $35.5 million. That would be on top of $16.5 million already committed. The state money will help encourage private investment and maximize $570 million from the federal Connect America Fund II that’s supposed to bring high-speed connections to 230,000 homes and small businesses across mostly rural areas of Wisconsin.
Broadband allows fast internet browsing, online commerce and video streaming that businesses need to sell products, and students need to access modern educational tools.
For example, some school districts offer students access to online sites from home that track and challenge each student in reading and math, adjusting the lessons to their abilities. Teachers get instant reports on each child’s online activities and performance.
AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier have secured federal dollars to help improve and provide fast internet to large swaths of the state. The companies also are investing money of their own. AT&T told State Journal business editor Larry Avila last week it invested about $835 million in Wisconsin between 2013 to 2015 for communications infrastructure.
Increasingly, companies are extending broadband to remote areas using wireless technology and existing cellphone towers.
It’s not just a rural issue. Parts of Dane County still have weak and unreliable internet. And Madison officials are trying to provide fiber-optic internet service to more low-income residents.
President-elect Donald Trump has talked about rebuilding America’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure. He should add broadband to the list.
Rural voters, especially in Wisconsin, were key to helping Trump win the White House. If the Republican president-elect truly wants to help rural economies and promote job growth, keeping the Connect America Fund going strong will be key. So will including broadband in any federal building plan.
Gov. Walker rejected millions of dollars in federal funding for broadband years ago. That was a mistake.
But with Republicans running Washington, the governor appears much more inclined to accept federal help.
That’s good. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Wisconsin needs strong digital connections across the state to succeed in the global marketplace and to keep and attract more young people in smaller towns and cities.