In the twenty-first century access to broadband, a system based on net neutrality is as critical as electricity and landline telephone service was one hundred years ago.
A student’s education and the state’s economy are dependent upon high speed access.
Many rural Wisconsinites still lack adequate access to the internet, and many suburban and urban consumers and businesses are also faced with limited broadband options and speeds. A primary reason is that much of Wisconsin are captive customers of a few big corporate broadband providers, who offer limited capacity at unreasonably high prices. While state government has begun to fund buildout of broadband networks, the bulk of the funds has gone to the same few big corporate broadband providers.
The solution lies in two commitments from state government. First, a public private build out which will require an estimated $500 million from the state which is to be matched by a $1 billion commitment from competitive private sector providers. Secondly, a state net neutrality provision similar to Washington state making it illegal for internet service providers to manipulate their networks to slow down or speed up service for specific customers.
Wisconsin can and should do more. Wisconsin needs a statewide broadband development program for the 21st Century akin to the rural electrification program of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Just like the rural electrification program, a statewide broadband program requires increasing government spending and empowering communities–not just companies–to invest in future buildouts.
Helping students and families, especially the economically disadvantaged and those living in rural communities, is crucial to building a workforce for the 21st century. That’s why we should encourage co-ops, the UW, municipal utilities, and rural nonprofits to become broadband providers where private-sector service is inadequate. Repealing 2003 Wisconsin Act 278, which discourages municipal broadband, would be a good start. Repealing Wisconsin Statutes Section 36.585, which prohibited the University of Wisconsin System and its campuses from providing broadband service to nearby libraries, schools, technical colleges, and other public entities, would be another important beginning. Both laws protect existing corporate broadband providers by eliminating likely public competitors.
Beyond these first steps, a robust program of government funding for broadband expansion such as the State of New York’s “Broadband For All” project is needed to be sure that in Wisconsin, internet connectivity is no longer a luxury. Broadband is as vital a resource as water and electricity to Wisconsin’s communities and is absolutely critical to the future of our economy and our education. The $500 million public commitment, which is one seventh of the ultimate public cost of the Foxconn travesty, will ultimately provide far more jobs, economic growth, and educational attainment – a benefit to the entire state.
Wisconsin also requires a regulatory program that treats broadband as the important public utility it has become. Wisconsin needs a watchdog over corporate providers, rather than the cheerleader the Public Service Commission has become under the Walker administration and the provider-friendly statutes his cronies in the Legislature have passed.
Specifically, much of 2011 Wisconsin Act 22 should be repealed. Passed in a particularly destructive Special Session that Walker called in early 2011, Act 22 decimated much of the statutory authority of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission (PSC) to investigate consumer complaints about the adequacy of telecommunications service or fairness of rates, eliminated PSC oversight of traditional landline telephone service (critical lifelines for seniors), eliminated price regulation for AT&T Wisconsin and Frontier North (formerly Verizon), and largely freed telecommunications companies from any significant state regulation.
One further step a new Governor can take immediately: protect Net Neutrality in Wisconsin. Recently dumped overboard by the Trump FCC, Net Neutrality is the legal concept that the internet should not be a toll road: all content should be treated equally and not be slowed down if a premium “toll” isn’t paid to the broadband provider.
For some reason, perhaps greed, providers like AT&T and Charter, believe that they should have the right to charge extra to not delay or impede content such as video. Already, the Governors of Montana, New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii have issued executive orders barring state agencies from doing business with internet service providers that violate Net Neutrality, effectively assuring that the major broadband providers in those states will not do so. The Department of Administration in the Soglin.
Administration will issue similar orders and enact appropriate legislation.