Gov. Tony Evers declared 2021 the “Year of Broadband Access” during his 2021 State of the State address Jan. 12 and announced his upcoming state budget will include nearly $200 million for broadband improvement, quadrupling the investment in broadband from the last budget.

Of that $200 million investment in broadband, Evers said during a Jan. 14 online meeting with agricultural media that about $150 million of that will be going to the broadband expansion program run by the Public Service Commission.

The current state of broadband in Wisconsin leaves 7.1% of population Wisconsin or at least 410,000 people — a number Jaron McCallum, director of broadband at the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, said is likely an underestimate — without access to at least one fixed broadband service.

“Broadband is too darn important to just assume it’s going to grow and improve and get to every corner of the state,” Evers said. “It’s 2021. Broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

Evers credited findings by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s “Wisconsin Tomorrow” report and listening to Wisconsinites for stressing how important access to high-speed broadband is to everyday life in the state.

Evers said a recent discussion with a farmer and cheesemaker highlighted the importance of broadband access. Evers said during the coronavirus pandemic, the farmer had to turn to the internet to make up for lost sales locally but spotty internet connectivity made the transition a challenge.

“He went virtual and it was a success, and it’s something he’s going to continue doing once the pandemic is gone (in addition to) selling locally,” Evers said. “He did what he had to do in order to survive economically, and that was the use internet. But he said it was just too sketchy. It worked enough to kind of keep the business afloat, but he said, ‘we absolutely need reliable internet.’

“Whether it’s students, workers, farmers, small business owners, we have to have access to services and our ability to conduct our economy over the internet, but also health care.”

In addition to the $150 million going to the broadband expansion program run by the PSC, Evers said about $40 million will go towards helping low income families afford high speed internet.

“There are many folks that do have access to high speed internet but, frankly, just can’t afford it,” Evers said. “Obviously the pandemic this year is showing that that we need to help some people that are low income and can’t afford the cost.”

More details on the broadband program will be coming when the budget is released next month, Evers said.

“We’re excited about this announcement and ready to get to work and get that money out into rural Wisconsin and made sure that we make a huge investment and huge progress in this area,” he said.

Evers said his budget will also include efforts to help local and regional meat processors get their products to market.

“During the pandemic, it became very clear that we needed a different type of supply line for our meat products of the state,” he said. “We hope convince the legislature that there’s wisdom in ... helping those local and regional processors get their product to market in a better way.

“If we want to take advantage of the meat processing system that we have here in Wisconsin, we should have that option.”

DATCP COVID-19 report

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection released a report summarizing its efforts in partnership with the state’s agricultural industry to respond to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

DATCP’s efforts included the distribution of nearly $80 million in emergency support, allocated by Evers from federal CARES Act funding to Wisconsin farmers, food banks, and other eligible nonprofit organizations; frequent communication with the public and a diverse cross-section of stakeholders representing the dairy and crop industries, livestock producers, food processors, retailers, agricultural lenders, agri-businesses, and government agencies, according to DATCP Secretary-designee Randy Romanski.

“It was really vitally important for us to build on those relationships during COVID-19,” Romanski said. “We plan to build on that further as we as we continue to respond and rebound from COVID-19.

“Our plan is to continue to have that level of connection, because we’ve learned that that we’re all in this together.”

A DATCP news release highlighting their efforts also included changes the agency has made to administrative policies to maximize flexibility and better serve DATCP-regulated entities and bridge-building across a variety of different agricultural and food sectors to foster connections between Wisconsin farmers and consumers in need.

“Wisconsin farmers and agri-businesses have faced a number of hurdles over the past several years, but COVID-19 caused unprecedented disruptions in nearly every sector of our agricultural industry,” Romanski said. “We’re proud of the way DATCP worked together with our partners to address issues as they came up. The pandemic has highlighted just how critical it is that we invest in the resiliency of our supply chains. We look forward to serving as a resource to the industry and policymakers as they pursue that work in the future.”