A task force charged with improving internet access across Dane County will survey rural residents in March, hoping to pinpoint the extent to which coverage gaps aren’t accurately reflected on state and federal broadband maps.
“One of the largest obstacles to broadband expansion in rural Dane County is that we have inaccurate data and incomplete data,” from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin and Federal Communications Commission, said Dane County Supervisor Kate McGinnity who co-chairs the county’s Broadband Taskforce with Supervisor Melissa Ratcliff. “Both access and speeds are way over-reported for rural Dane County.”
Both McGinnity and Ratcliff represent rural areas. McGinnity’s 37th District includes the villages of Cambridge, Deerfield and Rockdale, the towns of Albion, Christiana, Deerfield, Dunkirk and Rutland, and part of Edgerton. Ratcliff’s 36th District includes the village of Cottage Grove and the towns of Cottage Grove and Pleasant Springs.
The survey is expected to fill in data gaps that may be generating false narratives that all households in a geographical area, such as a Census block or an internet service provider’s coverage zone, are consistently well-served when many actually aren’t, McGinnity said.
“We have to see what’s going on in people’s homes, what is actually happening for them in their experience of broadband,” McGinnity said.
Among those involved in developing and administering the survey are the Dane County Planning Department, a UW-Extension economic development specialist who has created preliminary maps showing areas across the county believed to be underserved, and a team from the University of Wisconsin- River Falls’ Survey Research Center that will be conducting the survey and submitting a final report for the task force in June.
The Broadband Task Force began meeting in July with the goal of bringing a slate of recommendations to the county board for action in 2022. Its 15 members include representatives from a wide array of backgrounds: education, healthcare, municipal government, economic development and agriculture, senior citizens, youth, public works, internet service providers and citizens at large. The Dane County executive’s office has a seat, as does the Dane County Towns Association and the Dane County Cities and Villages Association.
The survey will help fulfill the committee’s charge to envision what broadband looks like in the long-term, “for the next generation,” McGinnity said.
“The more data and the better data we have, the better our future strategy is going to fit our needs in Dane County,” she said.
Who gets a survey
A selection of rural residents across the county will get a letter in the mail early in 2022 letting them know a paper survey is on the way, that they should fill out and mail back. There is also expected to be an online option, but that may come later and not open until May, Ratcliff said.
The survey will not involve Madison nor more populace suburban communities where cost is typically the barrier to access, McGinnity said. The issue in rural areas is typically infrastructure, and the current effort is focusing on that, she said.
State and and federal aid
Dane County announced last spring that it would earmark $5 million from its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation for broadband expansion. The survey is expected to consume about $50,000 of that. The county has until 2024 to spend the rest.
Municipalities, that are also receiving their own ARPA dollars that can be used for many things including broadband expansion, are expected to be among those benefiting from the survey data. They are being required to work with internet service providers to jointly apply for state and federal pandemic broadband expansion funds, Ratcliff said, and the survey data is expected to be key to their justifying local needs.
Municipalities are also among those eligible for Public Service Commission of Wisconsin broadband grants, totaling $100,000, in the 2021-23 biennial budget. Applications are due in March and grants are expected to be awarded in early summer 2022. More information on the PSC grants is at https://psc.wi.gov/Pages/Programs/BroadbandGrants.aspx
In all, the 2021-23 state biennial budget includes about $129 million for broadband expansion.
And that is in addition to efforts by private companies to expand broadband, including Charter Communications that in February 2021 was awarded $1.2 billion from the FCC and said it would invest $5 billion beyond that to bring high-speed internet to underserved areas. In a release at the time, Charter said it expected its efforts to concentrate on mostly low-populated rural areas.
McGinnity expressed “gratitude in advance for county residents who help us with the survey. The resulting data will help us all.”
“The call to action, if there is one right now, is that if you know someone who gets one of these surveys, encourage them to fill it out, even if they have great access,” McGinnity added.
To follow the task force’s work visit https://board.countyofdane.com/initiatives/Broadband-Task-Force
The task force is not the only group working to improve local internet access.
The Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) recently began offering free speed tests of upload and download speeds in Dane and seven surrounding counties. Anyone can take the test at http://madisonregion.org/industry-and-innovation/broadband/
McGinnity said the results may be even more confirmation that internet service providers are reporting “what their capacity is rather than what is actually happening.”
“There more of those data points we get, the better,” McGinnity said.
Ratcliff and McGinnity also recently co-sponsored a $270,000 amendment to Dane County’s 2022 budget, to fund a pilot program in which empty conduit is laid alongside a county roadway as it’s reconstructed.
The plan is to lease the space to internet service providers to run cable “to expand into areas where there currently isn’t broadband available,” McGinnity said. “It makes sense to do the dig once, and ISPs can come in later (and run their cable) and not have to worry about that cost.”
McGinnity said the pilot site is in the Waunakee area.
In 2023, the county expects to expand a 3-mile stretch of County Highway M from two to four lanes, between Oncken Road to State Highway 113.
That area “according to the maps that we have doesn’t have great access to broadband,” McGinnity said.
The $270,000 is enough to cover the cost of an engineering study and the cost of laying the conduit if the study shows that doing so would be practical and help improve internet access.
Ratcliff said based on the results of the pilot, the county may decide to lay such conduit as part of all future county road reconstruction projects, or to proceed case-by-case.