Baldwin wants to bridge ‘digital divide’

Senator asks northeast Wisconsin leaders for input on broadband access for all
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin takes notes July 8 as she listens to area leaders talk about the problems their communities have had because broadband internet access is not widely available during a roundtable discussion at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. Baldwin said she is seeking input on where there are gaps and needs so she can better inform others in Congress about the need for universal broadband.
(Lee Pulaski | NEW Media)Peter Thillman, right, chief economic development officer for Shawano County Economic Progress Inc., talks about the issues Shawano County has had when it comes to getting broadband internet access on July 8 as Dan Nett, superintendent of New Holstein School District, looks on.
(Lee Pulaski | NEW Media)U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, left, asks some questions about broadband internet access July 8 as Barb LaMue, chief executive officer for New North, listens during a roundtable discussion at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
(Lee Pulaski | NEW Media)U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin talks about the importance of broadband internet access, especially for rural communities, at the start of a roundtable discussion July 8 at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay. Baldwin touted legislation that will be taken up in Congress this month to provide funding to allow all areas of Wisconsin and other states to get internet access, regardless of their location.
(Lee Pulaski | NEW Media)
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin met with a number of officials from northeast Wisconsin, including Shawano County, for a roundtable discussion July 8 on broadband internet access — or a lack of it.

Baldwin touted the recent distribution of $500,000 grant to study the discrepancy in broadband access to New North, made possible through the federal CARES Act, in 18 counties, including Shawano, Oconto and Menominee. She said at a media briefing at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s Green Bay campus that the “digital divide” of quality internet access between rural and urban communities is one that has been known for a while, but the coronavirus pandemic magnified the issue.

“If you think about infrastructure, you think about the things we need to keep our economy going,” Baldwin said. “We need roads and bridges to get products to market, to get inputs into factories so they can produce whatever it is they produce, and for farmers to get feed onto the farm for their products to go to market. We need broadband for the very same reasons.”

Broadband is needed for businesses and farms to find outside markets willing to purchase what they produce, Baldwin said, noting that not having it limits the success of small entities in rural areas. The pandemic showed broadband was also essential to other necessities like health care and education when those buildings were closed to in-person access.

“During the pandemic, we learned that it was absolutely essential to our learning and our health,” Baldwin said. “Because of precautions and all the necessities of social distancing, people needed to start using the internet for all of the essentials of life.”

The New North grant is expected to be used to discover where all of the gaps are when it comes to internet access, according to Baldwin. White House statistics show almost 14% of Wisconsin residents live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure, and 69% live in areas where there’s only one broadband provider.

“Certainly, the local leaders and champions of economic development we had gathered today are aware of the gaps, but not necessarily with the sort of visibility and details they need in order to make the right policy decisions,” Baldwin said. “It was great to be briefed on how they’re going to use the funding in order to get a clear picture.”

A bipartisan agreement in Congress is expected to invest $65 billion for Wisconsin to allow affordable, reliable, high-speed internet access for every family regardless of where they live. Baldwin and her colleagues in the Senate will take up the issue the week of July 12.

“We are expecting, if we’re successful in passing these bills, additional funds to really build up broadband, especially in rural areas that don’t have access at all,” Baldwin said. “We need accurate data to do that, and we need good policies to do that.”

Baldwin noted that legislation passed earlier this year is requiring better coordination between the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Federal Communications Commission, and federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture as they determine how to reach far-flung areas of Wisconsin with broadband infrastructure.

“I don’t want them to be working at odds or in duplicative ways,” Baldwin said. ”I want them to work together to fill the gaps between their programs.”

Peter Thillman, chief economic development officer with Shawano County Economic Progress Inc., noted that the state’s Public Service Commission maps show that Shawano County has 100% broadband access. That is not the case by a long shot, he said.

“Shawano County had a unique challenge,” Thillman said, pointing out that the schools “all have iPads, but some of them don’t work because you can’t get a strong cellular signal. We know that we have some local providers that are very good at this, but we know that with the towers, we have a lot of woods, so if you don’t have a line of sight, you don’t have internet access even though on the (PSC) map, it says you have 100 megs.”

Baldwin agreed that the state and federal broadband maps were “a disaster.”

Thillman noted that smaller telecoms like Bertram Wireless and Wittenberg Telephone Company have been very responsive in trying to fill in some of the rural gaps, and the Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee tribes are working on plans to provide broadband access on reservation lands.

“We had telecoms providing free internet before the ARPA (American Recovery Plan Act) dollars came in so their communities could learn, which was really phenomenal,” Thillman said. “I can say our two sovereign nations, both the Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee, had both started projects putting fiber in the ground. That will make a big difference in that area.”

Still, the western and southeast portions of Shawano County are lacking, he said.

“We have people that could work remotely if they had internet access, but they can’t,” Thillman said. “You have people who are sick and need to access telehealth, but they can’t.”

Broadband access was an issue when it came to the schools, he added, and he thinks the future entrepreneurs and leaders of the world will be at a disadvantage because remote access to learning was not available in every corner of the county.

“I feel for this next generation of students,” Thillman said. “We’ve lost 15-20% of them just because they lost a whole year of learning. How do you make that up?”

Barb LaMue, chief executive officer for New North, said the federal grant that Baldwin sponsored will help the nonprofit agency to develop an implementation plan for each county so that, when federal funding is passed to build the broadband infrastructure, northeast Wisconsin will be ahead of the game.

“As additional dollars are added for broadband, we clearly want our region to be better prepared to be really strong applicants for getting that last mile of fiber in the ground or putting three more towers in,” LaMue said.

Broadband is no longer something for the privileged few, LaMue noted. It is something needed as much as electricity and phone access.

“Broadband is not a luxury,” LaMue said. “We liken it to a highway. We liken it to electrification. It’s not a benefit. You need it.”