High-speed broadband in Wisconsin is ramping up under newest phase of Connect America Fund

Expansion of high-speed broadband in Wisconsin is ramping up under the newest phase of the Connect America Fund, a federal program that attempts to shift funding away from phone service, and towards a better Internet connection.

“It’s basically to connect every home, business and anchor institution to the internet,” said Jim Jermain, vice president of external affairs for AT&T, at the Wisconsin Technology Council’s Innovation Network luncheon in Madison. “Along with this, companies such as AT&T agree to accept this money, there are some obligations: we have to provide voice service and broadband where we get this.”

Connect America Fund Phase II, otherwise known as CAF II, expands upon the original CAF, which Jermain says went in “the right direction, but didn’t quite do what they ultimately were hoping.”

The first phase brought about $38 million to cover parts of the state, and it mostly achieved that goal, according to Jermain.

“What they’re looking at with CAF II is a whole other animal,” Jermain said.

The initial focus was on price cap carriers–larger companies that provide service in Wisconsin such as AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier.

These big companies were given the option to refuse the federal money to avoid fulfilling accompanying requirements, but none did so.

“I’m pleased to say we all took the money,” Jermain said, adding that the six-year program was accepted by August 2015.

“Right off the bat, everyone asked ‘When can I get it in my area?’ and I think the FCC rightfully recognized that it would take some time to engineer such a massive deployment of broadband,” Jermain said.

Jermain said because of requirements and thresholds set by the FCC, at least 40 percent of the infrastructure must be built in areas receiving these funds by the end of the year.

“We’re going to start to see all of this kind of work come to fruition later this year, and that same requirement applies to CenturyLink and Frontier,” Jermain said. “After that, it’s 20 percent for each additional year for three years, bringing us up to the total.”

He predicts full completion of the project by 2020.

“We’re bringing in about $95 million into the state [annually],” Jermain said. “Broken up, that’s $9 million for ATT, $55 million for CenturyLink and about $30 million for Frontier.”

This money will link 230,451 new locations and homes to broadband that did not have access before.

“You’ve got a six-year plan, $95 million a year; if we can’t do something right with a half a billion dollars and make a difference in broadband in Wisconsin, then we’re doing something wrong,” Jermain joked.

Gov. Scott Walker earlier last year called for $35.5 million in broadband expansion, something that economic development leaders see as a good thing for fighting against workforce issues.

“We have a brain-drain in Vilas just like a lot of counties do, and for kids that want to go to college, we want to be able to bring them back, so we’re trying to be inclusive of all that,” said Carl Ruedebusch, chairman of the Vilas County Economic Development Corporation, who also attended the luncheon. “Without broadband, that’s not going to happen.”

Broadband access is crucial for more than just Millennials, however, as businesses looking to set up shop in Wisconsin eye prospective areas and examine available resources.

“This is a topic we care about so much,” said Correll Lashbrook, COO for DotCom Therapy, a remote speech therapy company in the process of moving from Missouri to Wisconsin.

“The two populations we care about most are rural and native, and a lot of the times those populations have a really hard time getting access to those things,” Lashbrook said. “It really helps us to know that a lot of this is going on.”

Angie Dickison, state broadband director for PSC, says she is “very hopeful about CAF II funding.”

“I am looking forward to what is going to happen in the next few years,” Dickison said at the luncheon. “We are at this great moment in time; we have investment occurring and technology advancement happening at the same time.”

See an earlier story on DotCom Therapy: