More than a quarter of rural Wisconsin residents don't have access to broadband service, according to the Federal Communications Commission's 2020 Broadband Deployment Report.

As the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Wisconsin, access to high-speed internet became more critical than ever, with many residents forced to work or attend school from home.

In some cases, getting that access meant working or keeping up with school while sitting in cars or restaurants, in school or library parking lots or at their neighbors’ houses.

And now, with school districts working to figure out what the upcoming school year will look like and recommendations from the state Department of Public Instruction for reopening including access to broadband and digital technology, the importance of that access remains high.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored that access to high-speed broadband is a necessity, not a luxury, and folks across our state have had to adapt — from kids and educators shifting to virtual classrooms, workers having to work from home, and even folks using telemedicine to visit with their doctor,” Gov. Tony Evers said July 14 in a news release.

On July 14, Evers created the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access, a bipartisan task force to advise the governor and Wisconsin State Legislature on broadband actions and policy. The task force will prepare an annual report that will include the current state of broadband in Wisconsin, as well as recommendations for policies and initiatives to overcome challenges to statewide access, affordability and adoption. The group’s first meeting will be later this summer.

“This task force will bring together experts from across the state to research and recommend solutions that state leaders can adopt to connect every person in Wisconsin,” Evers said.

State Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, was one of four state lawmakers named to the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access.

On July 22, Marklein sent a letter to Evers asking him to spend Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding on the Wisconsin Broadband Expansion Grant Program.

“I have recently been meeting with most of the 34 school districts I represent to discuss re-opening schools. I have talked with parents and community leaders about their virtual learning challenges last spring,” Marklein said in a news release. “(Dedicating CARES Act funds to the Broadband Expansion Grant Program) would be an ideal way to use these funds to meet real, quantifiable needs with a proven program.”

More than a quarter of rural Wisconsin residents don’t have access to broadband service, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report.

The creation of the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband Access comes on the heels of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s June 30 “Wisconsin Tomorrow — An Economy for All” report. The report assesses the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Wisconsin and identifies priorities for the state’s recovery efforts.

The report calls for the state to focus on three priorities: getting everyone back to work, fixing broadband, and supporting innovation.

Regarding broadband, the report found that the pandemic has highlighted the digital divide in the state. Education, e-commerce, remote working and even contact with government depend on access to computers and high-speed internet.

“It feels like the mindset with broadband has been ... every town for themselves,” Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, said during the July 23 Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Board meeting. “This is not something that is insurmountable. We can fix this problem. But it can be difficult when you have a scattershot approach.”

DATCP worked with WEDC on parts of the report that were outside WEDC’s scope of responsibilities, and DATCP Secretary-designee Randy Romanski said expanding broadband access is critical to the success of rural Wisconsin.

“Broadband is a necessity, not just something that is a luxury to have,” Romanski said July 16 during a conference call with agriculture media. “Not having universal access is a challenge for every industry, including agriculture.”

The Wisconsin Tomorrow report identified goals of expanding high speed internet access to every residence, business, and institution in the state; initiatives for digital inclusion; and pathways to unlocking and optimizing the benefits of statewide, affordable access to broadband for all communities in Wisconsin.

The report said the state took an important first step in that direction in March, when the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin awarded $24 million through the Broadband Expansion Grant Program as part of a $48 million investment in broadband included in Evers’ first biennial budget.

Evers said the task force is the next step in making sure everyone in Wisconsin has access to high-speed internet.

The task force will be chaired by Brittany Beyer, executive director for Grow North Regional Economic Development Corporation. The 24-member task force consists of “members who represent a balance of interests, perspectives, and areas of expertise,” according to Evers’ news release, and includes State Rep. Beth Meyers, D-Bayfield, State Rep. Jeffrey Mursau, R-Crivitz, State Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, and Marklein.

“All children, no matter their income or geography, need internet access for their education, whether schools can reopen or not,” Meyers said in a news release. “We need to build up our economy and make rural Wisconsin a place where workers want to live and raise families, but that won’t be possible without this critical infrastructure.”

“This task force will have strong, rural voices to represent the unique challenges in our communities,” Marklein said. “I look forward to our work together to continue expanding broadband in rural Wisconsin.”