Wisconsin's Digital Equity Values

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, October 13, 2023

Weekly Digest

Wisconsin's Digital Equity Values

You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of October 9-13, 2023

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are currently working on digital equity plans. As they release draft plans seeking public feedback, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is sharing summaries focused on how states define their digital divides and their vision for reaching digital equity.

Grace Tepper

All Wisconsinites will have equitable access to affordable broadband service and the capacity to fully engage in a digital society. High-speed broadband will benefit all residents and communities.

Following months of public outreach and stakeholder engagement, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin (PSC) released a draft Digital Equity Plan for public comment. Once approved by the PSC, the Digital Equity Plan will guide the state’s strategy to improve digital equity, ensuring all in Wisconsin have the skills, devices, and broadband service necessary to fully participate in society and the economy. The public comment period for Wisconsin's draft plan closes on October 19, 2023.

Barriers to Digital Equity

Approximately 79 percent of Wisconsin residents fall under one or more of the covered population groups identified in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Out of the overall covered populations in Wisconsin:

  • 57 percent are rural residents,
  • 31 percent are persons aged 60 or over,
  • 24 percent are members of racial or ethnic minorities,
  • 21 percent are low income,
  • 20 percent have a language barrier,
  • 15 percent are people with disabilities, and
  • 7 percent are veterans.

Individuals who Primarily Reside in a Rural Area

Wisconsin is a state with a large rural population, and many that identify as other covered populations also identity as rural. Farming, specifically dairy farming, is a vital piece of the state’s economy, and one of the primary small businesses in rural areas. Almost all barriers for rural populations were related to a lack of bandwidth, slow speeds, poor reliability, or lack of internet access all together. For many, if there was an available way to get broadband access, it was often exceedingly expensive.

Every survey, interview and data point related to rural populations identified access as the primary issue. Lack of competition from ISPs was noted by many rural residents as a concern, as well as numerous references to the poor or unresponsive customer service of their current incumbent providers. Those who had service expressed their frustration and mentioned the inadequate speeds they were receiving, often around 1 to 2 Mbps.

Affordability was a concern as many were angry about the service of their ISPs. Some quoted the price they were paying either now or in the past for the service from their ISP, including a couple of comments about not being able to understand their bill.

Aging Individuals

Access for the population over the age of 60 mirrors that of other covered populations. Two-thirds of the people interviewed said bad service, no service, and geography are the major barriers. Like the other covered populations, many of the elderly in rural areas identified a lack of reliable access as their number one barrier. Many were dissatisfied with their provider, and some shared that their broadband speed was well below the unserved threshold of 25/3 Mbps despite being advertised as available.

Approximately one-third of the aging individuals named affordability as a barrier to internet usage. For aging populations, often living on limited incomes through retirement and other means, high monthly costs for access are often not feasible.

Some of the aging populations that were interviewed lack the necessary digital skills to be able to use a computer or the internet effectively. Many groups and individuals expressed interest and a willingness to learn, noting that they learn from family members, especially younger family members such as grandchildren. Many of the aging population reported either been scammed or were wary of internet scams. Some of those who used the internet regularly confessed to being scammed for amounts ranging from $60 to $300. The problems with hackers, scammers and cybersecurity are a major issue for the aging population, highlighting the need for cyber security support and education for this group and others across the state.

Individuals who are members of a racial or ethnic minority group

Many individuals of racial and ethnic minorities interviewed were impacted by the neighborhood they lived in, especially in some of Wisconsin’s larger cities like Milwaukee and Madison. Some expressed concern that services systemically avoid areas where racial and ethnic minorities reside. In Milwaukee, individuals noted that areas with high populations of people of color and low-income residents were neglected by internet service providers, causing some areas without internet access or with slower relative speeds within large cities. Affordability was also noted as a major barrier, and further analysis has found that black and Hispanic populations are disproportionately burdened by broadband subscription costs in Wisconsin.

Individuals noted a need for privacy in locations with public device and Wi-Fi access. Consistently, the need for culturally responsive digital skills training and technical support arose. Both individuals and organizations reported increases in adoption when formal or informal digital navigators shared a similar background and culture. Many noted that this also allowed them to trust the navigator.

Low-Income Households

Across the state, access to virtual learning opportunities, telehealth, housing, benefits, and employment opportunities were all identified as prominent issues for low-income residents. For many of these low-income households with a limited budget, obtaining broadband access that met their specific needs was simply not an option due to their financial constraints and no available affordable broadband subscription options.

As of August 2023, approximately 387,000 of the estimated 894,005 eligible households in Wisconsin enrolled in the ACP. Approximately 41 percent of eligible households in Wisconsin are enrolled in ACP, as compared with an estimated 34 percent of eligible households enrolled nationally. Since the program’s inception, Wisconsin providers have received $141,069,641 in benefit funding to provide internet service to enrolled households.

For some of these low-income populations, not having an affordable subscription available may be a barrier, and others live in a location with no internet access and thus no option. For low-income populations that do have an affordable, low-income plan option, the services often have data caps and are less reliable. Although most public libraries in the state provide both free internet access and devices, they have limited hours of operation for access to these resources, sometimes they lack privacy, and often require transportation. Low-income populations were one of the two covered population groups that identified transportation as a barrier to access.

Individuals with a Language Barrier

Wisconsin has many populations who identify as English Language Learners. This includes a large Hmong population, Spanish speakers, Afghan immigrants and a significant migrant population. Access to the internet is vital for this population as they need access to learning resources, relocation services and connections back to their families in other parts of the world. Access is impacted by rural locations, the neighborhoods they live in and poor internet service.

As with other populations, cost is a significant barrier to full adoption of broadband service and internet-enabled devices. When it comes to choosing between food for the family and a monthly internet bill, the choice is driven by basic needs. Several educators also brought up the lack of credit cards or being unbanked. They might have a cell phone but no credit card to purchase the applications or materials they need for courses. Some programs provided laptops to students to eliminate device access as a barrier. However, they still directed them to community centers or libraries to obtain access to public Wi-Fi that may not be accessible at the time it is needed.

During interviews and outreach events Hmong, Afghan and Latinx populations that identified as having a language barrier shared the following:

  • The Hmong individuals engaged experienced access, affordability, and literacy barriers.
  • Much of the Afghan population that has immigrated to Wisconsin is in transition as they identify places to live and seek out needed resources, which makes accessing the internet very important.
  • Individuals shared that migrant populations tend to live in rural areas working in agriculture and dairy industries, noting that much of the migrant population is largely seasonal.

Individuals with Disabilities

The experiences of individuals with disabilities and their digital inclusion challenges vary widely, even amongst those with the same type of disability. Mobility, cognition, independent living, hearing, vision, speech, and self-care services are often used for data collection to understand people with disabilities’ experiences, but they are by no means comprehensive, and targeted outreach in communities is required to understand key barriers specific barriers to digital equity.

Access is often more complex and expensive for people with disabilities, as much of the common technology used for internet access was created by and for able-bodied and
neurotypical people, and it often lacks features that allow people with disabilities to fully interact. Wisconsin's digital equity plan recognizes this and provides detailed information on the different ways that individuals with different disabilities face the access barrier.

People with disabilities shared that the need for adaptive technology is often incorrectly associated with a lower level of digital skills. While those who lack adaptive technology may have less digital literacy as a result, those who have adequate access and support can excel.


Veterans’ broadband needs and gaps vary by geography as well as intersect with other contributing factors. In rural areas, the VA continues to roll out more telehealth options, which provide an opportunity for timely care when veterans need it, but the lack of access to high-speed reliable internet and the lack of digital skills pose barriers for veterans who need such care. Those without access wait longer to get an in-person appointment and often travel farther distances if they can travel at all. Rural veterans with disabilities are particularly vulnerable when there is no or limited access to broadband. When access to high-speed internet is available, staff observed a lack of adoption, expressed by some of the more internet-savvy veterans as a “lack of will” to engage in online activities.

Providing training in ways more familiar to veterans, such as Standard Operating Procedures or peer-to-peer training as well as technical support will be necessary to support wider adoption. Veterans shared that they use their fellow veterans for training and support. Access to high-speed broadband is a clear barrier across all populations, but veterans are the only other population that identified transportation as an issue to gaining access at a library or other public space. Veterans also expressed a lack of affordability, especially for rural veterans, that poses a large barrier to internet adoption and use.

Incarcerated Individuals

People who are incarcerated in Wisconsin do not have regular access to the internet due to policies, safety, and security concerns. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in even more strict isolation of people in jails and prisons, limiting traditional access to computers and the internet further. In response, programs were created to allow incarcerated individuals to purchase tablets that come pre-loaded with programs offering allowed (screened) books, music, and games for download. These devices also allow for video visitation of family and friends. There is a cost, depending on the location, to the person for these devices and for subscriptions to the content. Individuals in local (city or county) jails also do not have access to the internet. These sites may participate in the tablet program with secured subscription content. These sites may also have space for educational activities provided by outside groups. These services are dependent on the support of the local municipality.

A survey was conducted by PSC staff in the Eau Claire County Jail. Sixty people were interviewed (25 percent of the population), men and women, in groups of six to eight over a period of two days. Since the population does not have access to the internet while in jail, they were queried about their use of the internet before coming into jail and how they hoped to use the internet upon release. Several people mentioned that they were homeless before coming into jail and that they could not afford to pay for the monthly internet connection. Most were able to obtain a free phone that was WI-FI enabled before they were incarcerated, so they depended on access to free public wireless connections. Several people wanted to use the internet while incarcerated to work towards a degree, certification, or employment advancement. Like all covered populations, people used the internet for a variety of uses. Some seemed rather adept at digital skills, but others were less so. Several expressed frustrations that they are not allowed to search for things that they need when they are released such as employment, housing, food assistance, and supportive reentry programs.

Wisconsin's Digital Equity Vision and Values

Wisconsin's digital equity vision is:

All Wisconsinites will have equitable access to affordable broadband service and the capacity to fully engage in a digital society. High-speed broadband will benefit all residents and communities.

Digital Equity Values

The Wisconsin draft Digital Equity Plan coalesces around five core values:

  1. Access: Expanding high-speed internet access to every residence, business, and institution in the state. All Wisconsin residents require access to high-speed, reliable internet service to meet their specific needs and fully engage in today’s evolving digital society.
  2. Affordability: Ensuring broadband and key digital services are affordable for all. Across all geographies, demographics, and levels of access to broadband service, affordability is the largest barrier to the adoption of internet service in Wisconsin.
  3. Adoption: Ensuring all residents can connect to the internet, with the appropriate accessible, internet-enabled devices, skills, information, and services specific to their needs in real-time. Not only do Wisconsinites need access to affordable internet service, but they also require resources and services to ensure there is equity in adoption based on residents’ specific needs
  4. Trust: Providing readily accessible resources and supports to build trust with communities and ensure all feel safe when accessing the internet. All Wisconsinites and covered populations—particularly new adopters of internet service—need more trusted resources and support to increase confidence in accessing the internet and needed online services safely.
  5. Sustainability: Supporting intentional activities and investments for ongoing device access, digital skills education, and affordable broadband subscriptions. Wisconsin and its covered populations will require sustained efforts to meet both the funding required to reduce equity gaps and to respond to the evolving digital equity needs of communities.

Implementation Strategy and Key Activities

Wisconsin’s five digital equity values inform and direct PSC's efforts toward digital equity in the state. For each of these values, the PSC also articulates goals, objectives, strategies, and metrics for tracking progress.

1. Access: Expanding high-speed internet access to every residence, business, and institution in the state.

Goal: Achieve the highest possible level of broadband deployment and adoption.

Objective: Connect all Wisconsin homes and businesses to broadband with speeds of at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload service by 2030.

Strategy: Prioritize grant applications that reach speeds beyond 100/20 including reaching speeds of 100/100 Mbps or more.

Metric: Increase by 5 percent a year the number of households that have access to 100/20 Mbps.

Objective: All Community Anchor Institutions (CAI) connected to 1 Gbps symmetrical service.

Strategy: Prioritize grant applications that include 1 Gbps to CAIs.

Metric: Annually track the number of CAIs with access to 1Gig service with a goal of all CAI's connected by 2030.

Goal: Deliver sustained, long-term impact on broadband access and digital opportunity for all Wisconsin residents.

Objective: Wisconsin plans, coordinates, and capitalizes on the federal funding dollars available, including those through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act such as the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and Digital Equity Programs.

Strategy: Develop and provide outreach to support coordinated efforts to braid funding, particularly for covered populations.

Metric: Annually track the number of outreach efforts.

Objective: Where practicable, place a priority on reaching speeds beyond 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, including reaching speeds of 100/100 Mbps, 1000/1000 Mbps, and more.

Strategy: PSC prioritizes grants that go beyond the minimum requirement of 100/20 Mbps.

Metric: Increase by 5 percent annually the number of grant applications that are 1G/1G.

2. Affordability: Ensuring broadband and key digital services are affordable for all.

Goal: Increase the affordability and reliability of broadband service in Wisconsin.

Objective: Promote the Affordable Connectivity Program for all eligible Wisconsinites.

Strategy: PSC Digital Equity staff will offer ACP outreach and support.

Metric: 5 percent annual increase of households enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Objective: Ensure low-income monthly internet costs less than $30 per month.

Strategy: PSC work with partners/internal policy team to develop a statewide program to expand beyond the ACP to support less than $30 cost program.

Metric: A 5 percent annual increase of households have access to broadband service for $30 or less per month.

Objective: Connect everyone in Wisconsin at affordable rates.

Strategy: Include language in grant programs to encourage ISPs to adopt the affordability definition.

Metric: A 5 percent increase in the number of grant applications that include affordability.

3. Adoption: Ensuring all residents can connect to the internet, with the appropriate accessible, internet-enabled devices, skills, information, and services specific to their needs in real-time.

Goal: Support local digital literacy champions and digital navigators embedded within the community and trusted organizations that support the needs of covered populations.

Objective: Increase the number of digital navigators in Wisconsin.

Strategy: PSC will work with partners to develop a tracking system for digital navigator programs.

Strategy: Include a tracker in the PSC Digital Equity grants as part of reporting.

Metric: Increase the number of digital navigator programs by 10 percent a year in different geographical areas of the state.

Objective: Develop standards and programming for the training of digital navigators.

Strategy: PSC will work with partners to identify standards for digital navigator programs.

Strategy: Include standards in reporting requirements for Digital Equity grants.

Metric: A digital navigator training program has been adopted by 2026.

Goal: All Wisconsinites will have accessible, culturally responsive resources to grow their digital literacy skills.

Objective: Develop resources for digital navigators.

Strategy: PSC will work with partners to identify standards for digital navigator programs.

Strategy: Include self-reporting of individual progress in DE Digital Navigator grants.

Metric: PSC supports the creation of a model for digital navigators to use with trainees to self-report progress on their individual goals.

Goal: All Wisconsinites have access to resources and have the needed knowledge and resources to maintain cyber security.

Objective: Identify cyber security standards for funding programs.

Strategy: Attend meetings and participate in the state adoption of minimal cyber security standards.

Strategy: Partner to implement the standards by including them in DE and BEAD grants requirements.

Metric: The PSC will attend a minimum of two meetings a year with the state cyber security experts to identify minimum standards to be used when purchasing broadband services and assist in educating the public on these standards.

Objective: Identify cyber security training programs.

Strategy: Attend meetings and participate in the state creation of educational materials.

Strategy: Partner in a public education campaign.

Metric: The PSC will attend two meetings a year with cyber security experts across the state to develop educational resources and assist in educating the public on these standards.

Goal: Ensure every Wisconsinite has access to an internet-enabled device(s) and assistive technologies, that meet their needs.

Objective: Identify a statewide device program for funding.

Strategy: PSC works with partners to identify criteria for a statewide program.

Strategy: PSC recommends criteria for a program.

Strategy: PSC includes the unique needs of incarcerated populations in its criteria.

Metric: A statewide program plan has been identified for funding by 2026.

Objective: Identify a device program for the incarcerated population.

Strategy: PSC partners with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) to identify needs specific to incarcerated populations.

Strategy: The state includes this in the criteria for a statewide program.

Metric: In partnership with DOC a process for providing devices and skill training to incarcerated populations has been identified by 2030.

Goal: Ensure all Wisconsin populations and communities have accessible, first-language, culturally responsive technical support.

Objective: Fund technical support resources.

Strategy: DE and BEAD grants include these criteria in grant requirements.

Metric: DE and BEAD grant programs include language to encourage the inclusion of technical support programs that meet the above objective and are tracked annually for compliance by 2025.

4. Trust: Providing readily accessible resources and supports to build trust with communities and ensure all feel safe when accessing the internet.

Goal: All Wisconsin communities have resources and access to training and support that is culturally relevant, in their native languages, and clearly provided by a legitimate source that they trust.

Objective: Fund community-based training programs.

Strategy: DE and BEAD grants include these criteria.

Metric: For the forthcoming Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program, PSC will give a minimum of 20 percent of grants to organizations that self-identify that they serve covered populations. Give an additional 10 percent of grants to organizations that self-identify that covered populations are represented on their Board and staff.

Objective: Fund community-based conversations.

Strategy: PSC will work with partners to facilitate activities that expand partners.

Strategy: PSC will fund grants that include partnership-building activities.

Metric: PSC will foster 100 (20 a year) partnership-building activities by 2030.

Goal: Fostering trust and transparency among state government, local government, providers, and communities.

Objective: Support accessibility updates to Wisconsin digital resources.

Strategy: PSC will work to partner with state agencies to support updating online resources to meet the new federal standards.

Strategy: PSC will update online resources to meet the new standards.

Metric: PSC will partner with other state agencies to work toward the accessibility of all state resources.

5. SustainabilitySupporting intentional activities and investments for ongoing device access, digital skills education, and affordable broadband subscriptions.

Goal: Support Digital Equity work by expanding cooperation and partnerships of community-based organizations, anchor institutions, local governments, philanthropic groups, and other trusted local entities.

Objective: Increase community organization partnerships.

Strategy: PSC DE and BEAD funding will encourage partnerships of three or more entities. This should include groups that are embedded in the community they serve.

Metric: For the forthcoming DE Capacity Program, PSC will encourage partnerships across sectors and stakeholders by prioritizing applicants with partnerships that include the covered populations.

Objective: Develop resources to support community partnerships.

Strategy: Create a map or comprehensive inventory of state assets.

Strategy: Work with local, state and federal partners to share the assets and encourage funding of DE efforts.

Metric: The PSC will create a map or inventory of state assets for digital equity by 2025 and then track growth/partnerships over time.

Goal: Ensure community-based organizations, anchor institutions, local governments, philanthropic groups, and other entities engaging in Digital Equity work are aware of and pursuing available funding sources.

Objective: Encourage community partnership resource sharing to promote access to community initiatives and funding opportunities.

Strategy: PSC will work with partners to facilitate and fund community conversations and coalitions.

Strategy: PSC will fund programs that include community conversations and coalition building.

Metric: PSC will support 100 (20 per year) workshops, technical assistance, and/or partnership-building activities between community-based organizations, anchor institutions, local governments, philanthropic groups, and other local entities to disseminate best practices for broadband access, affordability, devices, internet adoption and digital literacy skills training.

Wisconsin Wants to Hear From You

The public comment period for Wisconsin's draft Digital Equity Plan will close on October 19, 2023 at 1:30 PM Central Standard Time (CST). Feedback and comments can be submitted using the state's Electronic Records Filing System.

More in this series:

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Oct 16––Nuts, Bolts, and Cables: Opportunities in Tribal Broadband (Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis)

Oct 19––2nd Annual Spectrum Summit (Joint Center for Politics and Economic Studies)

Oct 19––2023 Future of Black Communities Summit (Joint Center for Politics and Economic Studies)

Oct 19––October 2023 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting

Oct 24––41st Annual Everett C. Parker Lecture & Awards Breakfast (United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry)

Oct 24––The A.I. Divide: What is the Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Digital Equity? (Michelson 20MM)

Oct 26––Oregon Connections: Navigating the Funding Flood. (Oregon Connections)

Oct 29––The CyberShare Summit (NTCA—The Rural Broadband Association)

Nov 2––Workshop on Environmental Compliance and Historic Preservation Review Procedures (FCC)

Nov 6––Precision Agriculture Connectivity Task Force Meeting (FCC)

Nov 8––A Look Ahead to Access and Regulation in the Not-Too-Distant Broadband Future (Silicon Flatirons, Colorado Law, University of Colorado Boulder)

Nov 15-17––U.S. Broadband Summit (Fierce)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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By Grace Tepper.