Broadband Bills To Enhance Local Autonomy Thwarted By Wisconsin State Senate

*In partnership with Broadband Breakfast, we occasionally republish each other's content. The following story by Broadband Breakfast Reporter Jericho Casper was originally published here.

In a setback to efforts aimed at enhancing broadband access across Wisconsin, the state Senate dealt a blow to three key bills aimed at improving various aspects of broadband provision Monday.

The first bill in question, AB 1180, aimed to give local governments more autonomy by allowing them to apply for broadband grants directly, rather than requiring them to partner with a telecommunications utility or a for-profit organization, as is required under current (state) law.

Wisconsin State Seal

The bill also proposed expanding the permissible uses of grants beyond infrastructure construction and would have eliminated a requirement for a city, village, or town to prepare a feasibility report before constructing or operating facilities for public telecommunications, cable TV or broadband services.

Presently, Wisconsin law necessitates a public hearing before a local government can pass an ordinance or resolution to provision such facilities. Additionally, at least 30 days before this hearing, these entities must furnish a comprehensive report to the public, detailing the facility's costs, revenues, and a cost-benefit analysis spanning three years. AB 1180 would have waived the need for this report preparation.

Manding Internet Service Providers Deliver Advertised Speeds

The second bill, AB 1177, would have mandated Internet service providers deliver the speeds they advertise to consumers and hold them accountable if they failed to do so.

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Under AB 1177, if an ISP offers broadband services that do not meet the broadband speed standards set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), or if they advertise a specific speed that they do not provide, consumers would have the right to terminate their contract with the provider and receive a refund. The ISP would be required to bring the speeds up to the advertised levels within one month of being notified by the consumer.

The bill classified violations of its provisions as unfair business practices and would have allowed individuals who suffer financial losses to pursue legal action. Those affected could seek damages equal to twice the amount of their losses, along with reasonable attorney fees.

A Measure Exempting State and Federal Broadband Expansion Grants

The third bill, AB 272, aimed to exempt state and federal broadband expansion grants from state income and franchise taxes.

Retroactively effective from January 2022, the legislation would have waived state income taxes on any grant acquired through the Broadband, Equity Access and Deployment program or the American Rescue Plan Act.

Wisconsin State Capitol Building

According to fiscal projections, the bill’s provisions would help BEAD and ARPA subgrantees hold onto more of the money they receive for broadband deployments by decreasing state tax collections by approximately $25.3 million in fiscal year 2024 and $45.8 million in fiscal year 2025.

Legal firms estimate that upwards of 21 percent of new grants will be paid directly back to federal and state governments through taxation.

A similar measure proposed in Georgia was recently tabled by the state Senate, after passing in the state House by a near unanimous vote. Another bill in Congress that would exempt federal broadband funding from certain taxes has stalled.

These three bills were among more than 100 pieces of legislation that failed to advance as a result of the Senate Joint Resolution issued Monday.

Other broadband-related measures that also failed included proposals mandating the installation of empty conduit lines during excavation projects within a right-of-way, as well as a bill that would have given grant priority to projects that expand fiber to farms.

Inline image of Wisconsin State Capitol building courtest of Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported