By Tom Still

MADISON – A creative provision in the Assembly Republican “Forward” agenda released in early September is the pledge to provide every high school freshman with a computer or tablet to connect them with the internet.

“We understand technology is changing the way our schools operate,” the Assembly GOP plan reads. “Students use fewer textbooks and have more online assignments and readings.”

It’s an ambitious idea, especially given the cost of equipping about 65,000 high school freshmen per year with a laptop or tablet.

The harder trick is reliably connecting those students and their freshly minted computers with the internet. That’s especially true in much of rural Wisconsin, where broadband access can range from average to non-existent.

The Assembly GOP agenda calls for boosting internet connections through greater use of mobile “hot spots” and providing Wi-Fi access on school buses, the latter of which makes sense if you believe high-school students do a lot of homework while riding a bus with their friends.

Fortunately for Wisconsin and well-intentioned state lawmakers, a plan is in place to help ensure those new computers and thousands more in rural Wisconsin will be put to effective use. It’s the Connect America Fund, a federal program in which Wisconsin emerges a big winner.

Only California among the 50 states will receive more federal dollars than Wisconsin between now and 2020 to enhance broadband downloads and uploads in places that are isolated and otherwise underserved. About $570 million will be allotted over six years to three providers – CenturyLink, Frontier and AT&T, in order of competitive grant size – to augment private investments in broadband by those same companies.

About 40 percent of the money must be spent by the end of 2017 and 20 percent per year must be put to work in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The goal is to efficiently bring broadband at a market price to about 230,000 Wisconsin homes that don’t have solid access today.

The federal rules lay down minimum download and upload speeds – essentially, how fast a computer receives and sends data – as well as price points for service that must include reasonable data “caps,” or limits on monthly use that can force people to ration how much they use the internet.

A likely result of the second Connect America Fund (known as CAF2) buildout in Wisconsin will be more “fixed wireless” broadband, an alternative to much more expensive optical fiber systems.

The costs of installing optical fiber over large geographic areas has given pause even to companies such as Google, which is rethinking several of its U.S. broadband initiatives or trials. Those costs are more daunting in rural communities, where fixed wireless systems offer tower-to-building connections that meet standards set by the Federal Communications Commission as a part of CAF2. For the most part, fixed wireless can use existing towers.

Whatever the delivery mode, broadband is essential to the economic and cultural health of rural Wisconsin.

Adequate broadband connections can help stem the loss of rural population and jobs. It can enhance eCommerce for businesses large and small; bolster public safety; improve health through telemedicine; boost tourism by encouraging visitors to stay longer; entice Millennials to stay put and connected; and improve education for kids who otherwise lose their internet connections once they leave the school grounds.

The demographic hollowing out of Wisconsin’s North Woods and parts of rural Wisconsin will continue unless broadband coverage is improved.

The Assembly Republican plan, which proposes other ideas in transportation, health, public safety and economic development, correctly captures how technology is transforming education. What’s needed now is a commitment to rural broadband, which is the 21st century equivalent of rural electrification in the 1930s and 40s and rural telephone service in the 1950s.

Equipping high-school student with laptops and tablets is a bold step. Even bolder would be embracing a plan to make sure those devices connect to the outside world.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.