A Dane County Board task force will meet for the next year to explore how to best use new funding for broadband expansion, says the supervisor from Cambridge who pushed for the panel’s creation.
The County Board on April 22 unanimously approved the task force’s creation.
District 37 Supervisor Kate McGinnity said on top of existing grant programs from the Federal Communications Commission and the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers has included broadband funds in his biennial budget proposal and federal American Rescue Plan dollars will begin flowing in May, that can be used for broadband.
Dane County has announced it will earmark $5 million from its American Rescue Plan allocation for broadband expansion. Individual municipalities will also receive American Rescue Plan dollars that could be used for broadband, McGinnity said.
“I think we’re coming into a time when there’s going to be financial support for broadband, and it’s really important to be organized,” in order to take advantage of that, said McGinnity, who lives in Cambridge and whose 37th District includes the villages of Cambridge, Deerfield and Rockdale, the towns of Albion, Christiana, Deerfield, Dunkirk and Rutland, and part of Edgerton.
About one-quarter of county residents currently lack reliable broadband, and area school districts in 2020 identified many students who lack access, a resolution adopted by the board said.
“When COVID-19 sent a large segment of the population home for school, doctors’ appointments, work, banking, social interaction, and entertainment, the lack of reliable internet access became an even bigger barrier for people in rural, and pockets of urban areas, to do everyday functions, and underscored that something needs to change,” the resolution said.
McGinnity told the board that the primary purpose will be “to work on behalf of and in partnership with our municipalities to prepare them in applying for an understanding the grants available to them. That is our most direct link to expansion of broadband infrastructure.”
Ensuring businesses are served will also be a priority.
“Broadband expansion is directly related to economic development and the ability of businesses to rebound, get established and flourish,” the resolution continued.
And it will work to ensure that federal broadband maps are updated to accurately reflect underserved areas.
Ultimately, the goal is to ensure “100 percent coverage for 100 percent of our residents that want it. We’re not going to leave anybody out, I promise you that. And we’re talking about accessible, reliable, affordable broadband,” McGinnity told the board.
“We need to move forward as urgently as we can with this,” McGinnity continued. “There is still a lot of work to be done before we bridge the digital divide and provide this infrastructure that is as vital as electricity and running water.”
“I really appreciate the work that went into this,” said District 2 Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner, of Madison, calling broadband expansion “a really important issue.”
Wegleitner questioned, however, why the task force will fall under a public works rather than a human services umbrella, when it “is a basic human need and should be treated as such,” with “a lot of disparities as it relates to geography, race, ethnicity and income.”
County Board Chair Analiese Eicher responded that the task force will primarily focus on the expansion of infrastructure. “Certainly there is a human services element…but it did make the most sense to refer it to where I did,” Eicher said.
McGinnity said in an interview afterward that appointments to the task force will be made by Eicher. There will likely be 12-15 members, McGinnity said, adding that “a pool of really good people,” have tentatively been identified “in an effort to move this forward as quickly as possible,” to be ready to secure coming broadband dollars.
She said the task force is expected to have members “from all corners of the county,” who represent a broad array of interests from education to health care, local government, internet providers, business and agriculture and community organizations.
Task force meetings are expected to begin in May and will be facilitated by UW-Extension staff.
McGinnity said she has appreciated “the efforts of so many people,” who have spent the past year working toward the task force’s creation, singling out District 35 Supervisor Carl Chenoweth, District 28 Supervisor Michele Doolan “and especially” District 37 Supervisor Melissa Ratcliff, of Cottage Grove, “who did most of the heavy lifting.”