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State News: State Struggles to Meet Rural Broadband Demand

Wisconsin will provide a record amount of money for broadband internet in underserved areas of the state. The $24 million the state is making available in 2020 through the Broadband Expansion Grant Program is the largest amount since it began in 2014 – but it’s still not enough to meet demand.

“We received over $50 million in requests,” said Jaron McCallum, state broadband director for the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin, which administers the grant program. “That’s really been a consistent theme throughout our program.

“Requests far exceed available funding,” McCallum explained during a recent panel discussion with Pew Charitable Trusts. “That [forces us] to really home in on those high-quality projects that we see as having high impact.” 

Some progress has been made recently. The number of rural-Wisconsin residents lacking broadband access last year declined to around 486,000, or roughly 28 percent of the state’s rural population, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s most recent broadband-deployment report. In 2018, the commission reported 748,000 residents, or around 43 percent, lacked high-speed internet in the state.

Coal Shipping in Twin Ports Drops 

A record amount of cargo containing components used for generating wind power moved through the Twin Ports during the 2019 shipping season. The surge in wind-related traffic comes as Duluth-Superior handled the lowest amount of coal in more than three decades.

Around 8 million tons of coal moved through the Twin Ports last year, marking the lowest volume Duluth-Superior has seen since 1985. Jayson Hron, spokesperson for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, said the decline comes as demand for renewable energy sent a record 306,000 freight tons of wind turbines and other components through the port. 

“It’s becoming more competitive in the power-generation price spectrum, and so it’s just making it a more viable, higher-demand way of producing energy and power for our country,” Hron said. 

The cost of renewables such as wind and solar have declined in recent years. In addition, prices for natural gas are lower than for coal as production has reached near-record levels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The agency found that during the last decade, utility providers have announced the retirement of more than 546 coal-fired plants that produce around 102,000 megawatts of power. 

GOP Bill Changes Control of Livestock Siting Standards

Republican lawmakers are making a last-minute push to change the rules for siting the state’s largest livestock farms, giving state government more control over the process and granting agricultural groups considerably more power over changing the standards in the future.

Current standards were written into law in 2006 and have remained unchanged ever since. Although the new bill wouldn’t make major adjustments to standards initially, a panel of nine stakeholders – five of whom would be chosen from farm groups – would need to approve or reject future changes.

Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City), one of the plan’s sponsors, said it would give farmers the confidence they need to get bigger in an agricultural economy that increasingly demands it.

“The way that farming is working is [that] farmers are continually having to get bigger and consolidate – not because they want to, but in order to compete,” Tranel said. “I’m not necessarily saying that I like that, but that is the reality.”

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