Expansion of Rural Broadband Grant Program Proposed in New Bill

Broadband expansion also proposed in Governor’s state budget

February 17, 2017

As part of the Rural Wisconsin Initiative to improve infrastructure and meet the needs of rural communities in Wisconsin, Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Romaine Quinn (R-Rice Lake) are circulating a bill for co-sponsorship that makes several changes to advance broadband infrastructure in underserved areas of Wisconsin.

The proposed legislation incorporates proposals promoted by Gov. Scott Walker in December 2016 and in the 2017-19 executive budget bill as well as recommendations made by the 2016 Study Committee on Rural Broadband. The proposed bill would:
  • Allocate an additional $15.5 million to the Rural Broadband Expansion Grant Program for additional 2017 grant awards from surplus and unencumbered funds in various telecommunications program funds.
  • Remove limitations to the total annual value of grants that may be made through the Rural Broadband Expansion Grant program.
  • Incorporate new priority criteria and definitions for the Rural Broadband Expansion Grant Program that were recommended by the Study Committee on Rural Broadband. One of those new criteria includes a requirement that the grant program consider impacts of a proposed grant on the ability of individuals to access health care services from home and the cost of those services.
  • Prohibit the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) from requiring any appraisal or charging any fee prior to granting an easement for construction of broadband infrastructure in underserved areas.
  • Reallocate funding for and makes changes to the Technology for Educational Achievement (TEACH) Program. 
In September 2016, WHA and Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS) testified to the Legislative Study Committee on Rural Broadband regarding the importance of the Rural Broadband Expansion Grant Program. They said affordable, fast and reliable broadband is becoming increasingly connected to improving and ensuring access to health care in Wisconsin, particularly in rural areas of the state. WHA and HSHS also made recommendations for advancing rural broadband infrastructure, including explicitly recognizing and considering health care-related impacts when evaluating applications for the Rural Broadband Expansion Grant Program. 

“Hospitals and health systems appreciate the Legislature’s and the Governor’s efforts to promote affordable, fast reliable broadband access throughout Wisconsin,” said WHA President/CEO Eric Borgerding. “For health systems and the communities they serve, affordable, fast, reliable broadband at remote rural hospitals and clinics and at home is increasingly a means to improve access to and reduce health care expenditures in rural areas through telemedicine and emerging technologies.” 

This story originally appeared in the February 17, 2017 edition of WHA Newsletter