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Pandemic Underscores Wisconsin's Broadband Woes

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MADISON, Wis. - Like other states, Wisconsin is trying to function during the pandemic with workers and students connecting online in their homes. But there are fears that a lack of broadband access will leave rural residents behind.

According to the tracking firm BroadbandNow, Wisconsin has consistently ranked near the bottom among states in providing high-speed internet to all areas. And the Federal Communications Commission says 28% of rural Wisconsin has no broadband access.

State Broadband Director at the Wisconsin Public Service Commission Jaron McCallum says the new coronavirus crisis adds urgency to an issue the state has been trying to fix. "The state has been focused on filling in those un-served gaps for some time now," says McCallum. "And that is an issue that we've been focused on, and it does take time. But it's really kind of exacerbated or highlighted in times like these."

While no specifics have been laid out, McCallum says his staff has been huddling with internet providers on short-term solutions. Wisconsin recently handed out $24 million in broadband grants for under-served areas, the largest amount in state history. But McCallum says that still doesn't keep pace with funding requests. While the state and providers try to come up with solutions, residents in broadband deserts continue to look for Wi-Fi hot spots in public areas.

McCallum says that can be a convenient alternative, but it also creates problems when the state is under a "stay-at-home" order. "These Wi-Fi solutions may be an option, but certainly an issue that we need to be aware of is not, you know, congregating and creating clusters of people," says McCallum.

Rural broadband advocates say the crisis might finally catch the attention of state lawmakers to bring Wisconsin in line with other states in adequately funding broadband infrastructure.

Mike Moen is the Morning Edition producer and serves as a staff reporter for WNIJ. Every morning, he works with Dan Klefstad to bring listeners the latest Illinois news. He also works with the rest of the news staff on developing and producing in-depth stories. Mike is a Minnesota native who likes movies, history, and baseball. When most people hear his last name, they assume he is 100-percent Scandinavian. But, believe it or not, he is mostly German.
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