Members of a Dane County broadband task force that begins meeting this month say some key focuses will be helping area communities tap into internet expansion funding, ensuring that coverage maps are accurate and continuing to identify student access issues.
The task force’s 15 members include representative 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 will have a seat, as will the Dane County Towns Association and the Dane County Cities and Villages Association. And UW Extension staff are helping to guide the effort.
Dane County Board Supervisors Kate McGinnity and Melissa Ratcliff helped push for the task force’s creation and will both have seats. In a joint interview, they said a goal was to have all corners of the county represented in the appointments.
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.
Deerfield Superintendent Michelle Jensen has also accepted a seat, representing the county’s 16 public school districts that serve about 70,000 students.
Jensen said school districts, especially those in rural areas, had a sense prior to the COVID-19 pandemic about which of their families were struggling with lack of reliable internet.
“We were already having those conversations a few years ago,” Jensen said. Pre-pandemic, she said, it’s was already common for some high school students to sit in school hallways after sports practice to do homework, because their connection at home wasn’t reliable.
“That is not unusual for us,” Jensen said. Neither, she said, is it new for students sit in their cars in the evenings outside public libraries to access the internet to do homework.
“The pandemic and at-home learning only brought a kind of magnifying glass to the issue,” Jensen said.
And Jensen said it’s not just students who need better service. Parents, she said, also increasingly need good internet to access portals where they do everything from checking student attendance to scheduling conferences.
“That is now the conduit for parents to find out information about their children,” Jensen said.
And she said it’s now standard for new curriculum to arrive with both a hard copy textbook and an electronic resource.
Going forward “our curriculum and the way we teach is going to become more focused on these tools,” Jensen predicted.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction was able to compile some coverage data, and school districts gained a much clearer sense of the needs of individual students and families, Jensen said.
She said what’s needed now is a conversation not about short-term fixes like handing out internet hot spots to students, but about long-term solutions.
“That’s going to take some work,” Jensen said. “The crisis is over, but the problem remains.”
The Dane County Board unanimously approved the task force’s creation in April and its members were appointed in June.
Its first meeting is Tuesday, July 20 at 3 p.m. and will be virtual. The agenda and minutes will be posted at dane.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx
The group will work over the next year to collect data, research and explore various funding mechanisms, identify where broadband access is and is not, explore alternative solutions, and make recommendations to the county board on the role of Dane County in facilitating the expansion of broadband services to residents, a release said.
About one-quarter of county residents currently lack reliable broadband, and area school districts in 2020 identified many students who lack access, the county board said in a resolution adopted in April.
“We have a lot of work to do to make sure all residents of the County, regardless of where they live, have reliable, affordable internet access,” Eicher said in a release. “This task force is an important step in bringing a wide variety of voices to the table to move the needle on this issue.”
McGinnity told the county board in April that on top of existing grant programs from the Federal Communications Commission and the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers had included broadband funds in his biennial budget proposal.
Dane County also announced in the spring that it would earmark $5 million from its federal American Rescue Plan allocation for broadband expansion. Individual municipalities are also now receiving American Rescue Plan dollars that can be used for broadband.
McGinnity said the task force’s “overall purpose is to partner with our communities, especially our rural communities, to assist them in the heavy lifting that their boards just don’t have the capacity for,” to complete tasks like partnering with internet service providers to apply for broadband expansion grants.
“Right now, the internet service providers are usually the ones who need to submit the grants, so you need to have that relationship,” McGinnity said.
“We’re going to use some of our county resources to do some research about what grants are available, and what qualifications are needed for those,” and will pass that information on to school districts, municipalities and others, McGinnity continued.
McGinnity and Ratcliff said there are pockets of Dane County where neither cell phone nor broadband service exists.
McGinnity said it recently came to her attention, for instance, that an entire neighborhood in the village of McFarland “20-some houses,” have no internet access whatsoever.
She said that’s just one of many stories.
“There are pockets in the towns of Albion and Rutland, and town of Deerfield for sure, where there’s no signal of any kind. They can’t get a cell signal and they can’t get broadband,” McGinnity said. “They’ve got to drive to connect to the world.”
So close the state capitol in Madison, “that’s hard to imagine,” she said.
Ratcliff said not having access to reliable, affordable broadband “hurts our economy, it affects our housing market, it affects everything.”
She said broadband expansion may remain a challenge if it remains not viewed as a utility.
“We need to view it as a necessity. I hope we can get to that point soon, but until then we have this task force getting started in Dane County,” to begin laying the groundwork for that change, she said.
Ratcliff and McGinnity also said coverage maps that suggest more than 95 percent of Dane County has high-speed internet are skewed by Madison’s urban population at the county’s geographical center.
What a re-mapping effort might specifically entail remains to be seen. Ratcliff said it may involve conducting surveys and perhaps “going from house to house hearing from homeowners whether they have coverage or not.”
“That’s something the task force will work on,” she said.
Ratcliff said the first few meetings are envisioned to involve just getting everyone on the same page, with help from UW-Extension staff, “to give broad perspective on the issue at large.”
“Everybody coming to the table is going to have a different set of experiences and knowledge; we’ll want to establish a baseline,” McGinnity said.