Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


CARES, ARPA provide internet services for low-income communities

Broadband expansion, technology access for all Wisconsinites help address digital inequity
Marissa Haegele

A September budgetary allocation audit by Wisconsin’s nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau reviewed the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. The pieces of legislation provide pandemic relief, broadband expansion and other community-based services.

The Wisconsin Public Service Commission is the agency responsible for apportioning the funds from both of these acts. The PSC has received criticism for its poor oversight, as millions of dollars have been allocated to providing subsidies to telecommunication service providers in the state without proper documentation of expenditures.

The audit revealed the PSC used invoices, easement contracts and payroll paperwork in lieu of documentation of contract fulfillment, which raised questions of whether or not broadband expansion has succeeded or where it has been implemented. The inspection, however, did not identify any unauthorized expenses or errors, and commissioners have plans to follow-up with providers on project progress.


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These technical missteps in grant issuance fall in tandem with COVID-19 — an unprecedented public health crisis. Empathy should be extended to commissioners, who had to work quickly to disburse these grants in the interest of expanding public access to utilities such as broadband connectivity.

CARES and ARPA have both served a critical role in funding the establishment and refinement of the regional infrastructure for remote forms of work and school.

Since the pandemic shifted everyone’s lives into a digital sphere in March 2020, some network operators have reported as much as a 60% increase in demand for broadband services. The surge in consistent internet users made itself known with network instability and outages in the initial COVID-19 lockdown period in 2020, posing difficulties for students and members of remote workforces who depended on reliable internet access.

Wisconsin is home to roughly 1.5 million people living in stretches of low population density areas. Rural municipalities often exhibit pronounced deficits in healthcare, food security, reliable Internet access, quality education and other public health determinants, which has posed barriers to community health during the pandemic.

The monetary support provided by pandemic-relief and broadband expansion legislation has enabled Wisconsin to begin addressing what has been dubbed the “digital divide” — a lack of broadband internet access in rural areas. According to the PSC, 21.8% of rural Wisconsinites do not have access to a single fixed broadband service with a speed of 25/3 Mbps or faster, which falls below the national average of 17.2% for others residing throughout the rural U.S. 

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Over two and a half years into the pandemic, many folks have returned to living life as they did prior to COVID-19 shutdowns. But, transmissibility of the virus remains high and the upswing of post-COVID conditions has prompted the need for comprehensive multimodal learning and continuing remote employment.

Inaccessibility of broadband network connectivity also disproportionately impacts people of color. According to the Dane County Equity Consortium, 13.4% of Black residents and 8.3% of Hispanic and Latinx residents in Wisconsin do not own a computer. For white students, that figure is just 5.8%.

Maintaining dependable frameworks for remote participation in work and education needs to remain a priority. Inequities have been underscored time and time again throughout the course of COVID-19, and grant funding is crucial for meeting public needs and addressing disparities.

Wisconsin Public Service Commissioner Rebecca Cameron Valcq endorsed a statewide need for equitable access to broadband. In a press release from the office of Gov. Tony Evers, she explained the benefits of affordable and consistent broadband connection.

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Providing the resources communities need to be connected is a necessary step toward digital equity, Valq said. Making broadband more accessible and affordable is absolutely crucial in the modern technological era.

The internet is, in many ways, the heart of our lives. With increasingly virtual educational and employment experiences, internet use is becoming more fundamental for all sectors of society. Access to an increasingly necessary tool should not be considered a luxury.

Integration of marginalized communities in all facets of life is long overdue, and access to reliable connection should not be determined by socioeconomic status. Sustaining the progress of broadband expansion initiatives is crucial, and supporting the statewide efforts to enable reliable access to broadband is among the greatest means of ensuring opportunity and digital equity for all.

Katie Sullivan ([email protected]) is a sophomore studying health promotion & health equity and communication sciences & disorders.

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