Tuesday November 12, 2019

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Broadband for Those Who Need It Most

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 06 November 2019
in Wisconsin

broadband-map-northwoodsThis is the second of two columns describing the importance of broadband expansion in Wisconsin.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - We’re facing one of the largest infrastructure challenges in Wisconsin history. The decisions we make today on broadband expansion can either make Wisconsin a leader or allow us to fall behind in the digital age.

Last week, I discussed the challenges of getting better broadband. This week, I will break down how Wisconsin can get broadband out to those areas companies call “not profitable.”

Private internet service providers (ISPs) have to show a profit. They must balance the cost of connecting hard to reach homes and businesses with the amount of customers willing to pay for their service. During a recent broadband summit in Colorado, I learned ISPs need a 50% “take rate” (half of all homes in a village must take their service) for them to consider it profitable enough to provide the service.

New technologies can span long distances such as fixed wireless, low-orbit satellite or TV white-space, but they can be unreliable when the weather is bad or there are obstructions between towers and homes. The most expensive way to provide broadband is by using fiber optics. The average cost is $27,000 per mile, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. However, fiber optics provide the most reliable service and offers the speeds that are needed to keep up in an era of continual technological obsolescence.

Cheaper, line-of-sight technologies won’t work in the coulees and bluffs of the Driftless area. The high cost of installing fiber optics and the low population density are reasons why western Wisconsin is skipped over by ISPs.

There are cheaper ways to deploy broadband, but we need to get creative. I will be introducing “dig once” legislation to allow local governments to require empty conduit lines be installed in the right of way when work is being done along highways or roads. After the conduit is installed, ISPs can add fiber optics without digging up the right of way again. This allows ISPs to easily install fiber optics in the empty conduit at a significantly lower price. Dig once policies can save ISPs up to 90% of the cost to run fiber optics.

It will take significant public investment to get broadband to our sparsely populated areas. Wisconsin created a state broadband expansion grant program in 2013, but former Governor Walker and Republican leaders failed to fund the program. While Minnesota was investing $85 million from 2014-2017, Wisconsin only spent $3.9 million. The Legislature did better in the 2017-2019 biennial budget by adding $14 million to the program, but failed to make the necessary changes to target rural communities.

Thankfully, Governor Tony Evers set the tone for getting serious about broadband expansion by requesting $75 million for the grant program. The Legislature cut the Governor’s plan by $30 million, but still increased Wisconsin’s efforts to fund broadband expansion grants overall.

jeff-smithWe’ve turned a corner for getting serious about our financial commitment for broadband expansion. The next challenge is ensuring public dollars are spent in the most effective way. We must focus our public dollars on projects ISPs have considered not profitable. Instead of using taxpayer-funded grants on projects to make private companies more profitable, we should be using those funds for the hardest to reach areas. That’s the whole point of public investment.

No matter what we do to coax ISPs to rural Wisconsin, the map for expansion still belongs in the pockets of private companies. The only way Wisconsin can lure private companies into rural communities is by allowing municipalities to create publically-owned broadband infrastructure. Broadband, like many other services should be considered a public utility, just like electricity, water or gas if the public ever wants to control the expansion of service.

Ask any private ISP whether municipalities should create their own digital infrastructure and you will be told of all the difficulties. What you won’t hear is how it forces private companies to expand faster.

As we invest more resources, we need to take a good hard look at where the money is going. The public needs more say over how to get critical broadband internet service. We are not quite there, but I’m confident we can get ALL of Wisconsin hooked up for our future.

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Broadband Expansion: Better Broadband

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 30 October 2019
in Wisconsin

internet-ruralSen. Smith writes about some of the ways Wisconsin can improve internet speeds and accessibility. This column is the first of two columns describing the importance of broadband expansion in Wisconsin.


MADISON - After spending three days in Denver for a Broadband Summit with legislators from across the country, I came away with even more of an urgency to help Wisconsin catch up to other states on broadband internet expansion.

Wisconsin has a lot of opportunity to improve. In 2016, Wisconsin was ranked 49th in the nation for internet speeds according to the technology firm Speedtest. More recently, Wisconsin jumped to 41st for internet speeds. There’s no way around it, we need to provide internet speeds designed to keep up in a global economy.

Speeds may be increasing in Wisconsin, but progress is slow. Slow speeds don’t just force our TV streaming services to buffer. It’s more than that. Internet speeds determine the education of our children, the health care of our sick and the sales of our local economies. Every second counts on the Internet for almost every facet of our lives.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers broadband speed to be at least 25 megabytes per second (Mbps) while downloading website content and 3 Mbps while uploading. If fiber optics reach your home, speed is not an issue. But in rural areas like mine and many of yours, it’s like riding a moped on the Interstate – you’ll get there eventually, but the rest of the traffic is whizzing by at an alarming pace. For those who use dial-up internet, you know just how important it is to have adequate speeds. For people in rural communities with only satellite internet service, you know the hardships of having spotty internet service and data limits.

Technology continues to advance with new low-orbit satellites, 5th Generation (5G) capabilities, whitespace technology and fixed wireless antennas. The only tried and true method for delivering the speeds needed for today and tomorrow’s internet is fiber optics. Installing fiber optics may be expensive, but it provides assurance that Wisconsin can compete in a global economy.

Speed isn’t a luxury for internet usage – it’s a must. It’s truly an accessibility issue when determining whether a user has internet or not.

Understanding which speeds are where is another challenge. Wisconsin is not alone. Across the nation, the data informing regulators where broadband exists and where it doesn’t are completely inaccurate. We need honest mapping now.

The FCC uses census blocks to determine what areas are served. Urban census blocks can be as small as a few blocks and rural census blocks can be miles in size. Building broadband maps from these census blocks is a problem because they only show us where broadband MIGHT be available. I say might, because using census blocks, if one house can be connected in that block, then ALL of the homes are considered connected.

Fortunately, the FCC is taking steps to address these egregiously inaccurate maps by using multiple data streams such as shape-file mapping and crowdsourcing. This is important because there is a general belief that 80% of the population is being reached and some of us are skeptical of that claim.

jeff-smithWe can’t expand broadband to areas unless we know where it is needed. With the right data, we will not only be able to expand broadband to all areas, but we will be able to effectively lay out our infrastructure more efficiently.

Big things are in store for Wisconsin. During the summit in Denver, we learned about the applications of Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computers, 10G capability, microbiomes and other mind boggling science. In fact, as we wrestle with decisions on our 5G service, we learned that the science is already complete for 10G service! Technology is advancing at a break-neck pace and Wisconsin needs to keep up.

We need to think ahead for broadband expansion – speeds are the bottleneck of many users and accurate maps are the most immediate issue for understanding where broadband is needed. In my next column, I will be focusing on how we should use our state resources for broadband expansion and new ideas for making progress in our rural communities.

The 31st Senate District includes all of Buffalo and Pepin counties and portions of Trempealeau, Pierce, Dunn, Eau Claire and Jackson counties and very small portions of Chippewa and St. Croix counties.

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Our Financial Future

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 23 October 2019
in Wisconsin

family-worried-billsSen. Smith talks about the importance of budgeting, saving and learning about our personal finances. Lawmakers have a responsibility to address important policy issues affecting financial wellness, including healthcare affordability, insurance accessibility and payday lenders.


EAU CLAIRE - October is “Financial Planning Month,” so we should all think about how we plan for our financial future, especially this week as we recognize “Save for Retirement Week” and “Get Smart about Credit Day” on Thursday.

While celebrating “International Credit Union Day” on Thursday last week at a local credit union in Melrose, I was inspired to write about the importance of protecting our personal financial future. October is a great time to think about our finances, but we should be committed to financial wellness year-round. We also need to push for progressive policies aimed at improving the lives of everyone.

The general rule for saving is to have 3 to 6 months of wages saved up for an emergency. However, for those of us who live paycheck-to-paycheck that’s easier said than done. The benefits of having an emergency fund alleviates financial stress and provides families with a little bit of breathing room to make important job decisions if laid off or while being unable to work.

Budgeting is critical – each hard-earned dollar should have a purpose. Sometimes it’s for rent or the mortgage payment and sometimes it’s for our future retirement. Tracking how much we spend on food, gas, utilities and other essential personal expenses gives us a better understanding of the value of a dollar.

Having personal savings can help us avoid predatory lenders too. Payday lenders, auto title loans and credit cards shouldn’t be part of our “emergency plan.” Students, the elderly and low-wage earners can be susceptible to predatory lenders, scams and fraud. Having a better understanding of our personal finances and creating savings is a good defense against falling prey to these lending practices.

During my time in the State Assembly back in 2009, I worked on bills to prevent payday lenders from taking advantage of consumers and introduced legislation to keep credit card companies away from students on campus. This session as Senator, I’ve signed on as a co-sponsor of SB 132 to prohibit caller-ID spoofing practices. This will prevent solicitors from deceptively masking their phone numbers when calling people to commit fraud and identity theft.

Not everyone has the income security to fall back on and the ability to set aside money for a “rainy day fund.” Wages are stagnant for most Americans, but livable wages for everyone holding a job is a good start. Neither the federal nor state minimum wage has kept up with inflation or the rapid pace of change in the world. Wage inequality is the worst we’ve seen in 5 decades. According to data from inequality.org, the top 10% earn 9 times more than the bottom 90% on average.

Bankruptcies are too high and not because families don’t plan well. The leading cause of bankruptcy is an unexpected health crisis. Health insurance, if a family can afford it, doesn’t always cover everything. Not only do health care costs affect our finances, but our ability to work is also affected with health-related problems. Too often, an unexpected health crisis can set a family back so far they never recover financially.

jeff-smithIt’s well-documented our health system is broken and we are behind the rest of the developed world. We desperately need to convert our health care model to a national health system that doesn’t leave people behind. Even Medicare needs improvement, but Medicare for ALL could be the answer.

Each of us are stewards of our personal financial future. The unexpected should always be expected and our personal savings should reflect it. Policymakers are responsible for making an economy that works for us – decreasing health care costs, increasing living wages and curbing predatory lenders is what each of should expect from our leaders in Madison and Washington.

We all need to work together to help everyone become financially independent. We can’t forget about people who are far too often forgotten. Maybe part of our planning as society should include advocating for a system that works for everyone so nobody gets left behind. As Paul Wellstone used to say, “We all do better when we all do better.”

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Recognizing Indigenous People’s Day

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 16 October 2019
in Wisconsin

native-americanSen. Smith writes about Indigenous People’s Day, the day to recognize the rich ancestral history and cultural impact of Native Americans in our state.


MADISON, WI - There’s quite an interest in genealogy these days. We can now order a kit to learn what ethnicity make up our DNA to better understand our heritage and ancestry. Even beyond this initial discovery, we can connect to unknown relatives. It’s a privilege to learn more about who we are from our ancestry.

Last week, Governor Tony Evers declared the second Monday in October as Indigenous People’s Day. This day is an opportunity for Wisconsinites to recognize the rich ancestral history and cultural impact of Native Americans in our state that often goes unappreciated. Just as important, this day allows us time to reflect on our country’s troubling history towards Native Americans. Together, we should reflect on the diverse ancestries that make up Wisconsin and continue to strive for a more equitable state for all.

For centuries, indigenous people have suffered in many ways while European settlers stole their land and left them displaced. They’ve been victims of genocide, racist government policies and forced assimilation of European customs. Throughout history, popular American culture has portrayed this group in racist, derogatory ways.

Despite the historic and modern day challenges that Native Americans have endured, they still demonstrate enormous pride in their own history and traditions. Their stewardship of the land and water for generations has shown everyone the importance of our environment. We owe a lot to the people of the First Nations. Indigenous people deserve our gratitude and respect.

jeff-smithThis legislative session, I’m proud to support initiatives for Wisconsin’s indigenous population. I introduced Assembly Bill 497 that will allow all tribal members to receive in-state tuition through the University of Wisconsin system. This bill will allow our UW System to become a magnet-school for all First Nations People across America. I’ve also sponsored Senate Bill 493 that would create a task force to investigate the unreported epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Wisconsin.

I’m proud to have sponsored Senate Bill 25, which passed into law as Act 250 in 2009 that prohibited the portrayal of Native Americans as a mascot in the state. This legislation passed, but has since been weakened by current legislative leaders. We should put a stop to this racist practice and ban it for good.

In September, I was honored to attend the Labor Day Pow Wow on the Ho Chunk grounds. As an outsider, I was welcomed and even invited to participate. I was impressed by the strong community presence and the traditions practiced. They’re dedicated to preserving their heritage by passing on stories from one generation to the next. Relationships between tribal members ran deep – their closeness between distant relatives was seen in their respect toward each other and their shared respect toward the land.

Recently, my wife and I had a discussion about what it would be like to live in the same place as our ancestors. Before my wife asked, I hadn’t thought too much about it, but it must be amazing for my distant relatives in Norway and Poland. These distant relatives do know what it’s like to know our family’s story and understand our heritage.

We can all agree it is fascinating for people of all backgrounds to learn about ancestral history. We must recognize our heritage – the good, the bad and the progress we continue to make as Americans.

As we observe Indigenous People’s Day in Wisconsin, we must stay committed to valuing the rich diversity of our state. Indigenous People’s Day is long overdue. Let’s all show the respect our state’s indigenous population deserves. It’s time we recognize everything they’ve done to protect this land and honor their contribution to our state.

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Believe in America’s Dairyland

Posted by Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, State Senator District 31
Jeff Smith, Senator District 31 (D - Eau Claire)
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 09 October 2019
in Wisconsin

farm-familySenator Jeff Smith's Weekly Column is about Wisconsin's work to help dairy farmers make it through the recent dairy crisis. To preserve our reputation America's Dairyland, we need to stop family farm closures and find new ways to help young people continue our state's rich agricultural traditions.


EAU CLAIRE, WI - Take a moment to imagine living on a small family farm. Waking at dawn to a rooster crowing and cows mooing. You head down to the barn to get the cows milked, collect chicken eggs, clean out stalls and feed all the animals before going back into the kitchen to grab breakfast for yourself.

This all too familiar lifestyle for most Wisconsin family farms is quickly becoming an illusion for our next generation of dairy farmers. Our reputation as America’s Dairyland is our pride, especially in the western Wisconsin and the 31st Senate District.

Oftentimes I’m awestruck at the beauty of western Wisconsin and the scenic farms nestled in the valleys and hills. People come to Wisconsin for a lot of reasons, but they almost always make sure to leave with some Wisconsin cheese. There’s no substitute. My own daughter still finds a way to bring tasty cheese back home after every visit to Wisconsin.

The dairy market crisis is wreaking havoc on Wisconsin farms. We’ve seen 551 dairy farms close in 2019 already after losing 638 in 2018 and 465 in 2017. Small, family farms are the hardest hit. Farmer suicides have shaken our communities to the core. Farmers face the decision to sell the farm or take on more debt to become bigger. Trade wars, access to credit and years of low milk prices make it hard for young folks to see a future in dairy farming.

At the World Dairy Expo in Madison last week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “In America the big get bigger and the small go out.” He doubled-down on his comments about small family farms by saying, “I don’t think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” That statement might help explain why farm subsidies seem to end up in the pockets of the largest operations while the small family farms are left with crumbs. It highlights what we already know. Leaders in Washington don’t have any intention to alleviate the dairy crisis in Wisconsin.

It’s clear we need to step it up right here in our own backyard. Starting in 2018, the Wisconsin Dairy Task Force 2.0 started meeting and learning from professionals in the dairy industry about the challenges we face.

The Task Force offered 51 recommendations to help Wisconsin’s dairy industry. Already, we’ve enacted the Dairy Innovation Hub idea so farmers can learn cutting-edge dairy farming methods at UW-Madison, UW-River Falls or UW-Platteville. But that isn’t nearly enough – there’s a lot more to do. Here are just a few of the other ideas that came out of the Dairy Task Force recommendations:

  • Increase funding for dairy processor grants from $200,000 to $400,000 annually.

  • Enable new startup cheesemakers by evaluating methods for shared cheese production spaces.

  • Reinstate the “Grow Wisconsin Dairy” initiative to help farmers access capital for farm succession and transition planning.

  • Conduct a review of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) for self-employed individuals.

  • Establish and offer model programs for communities, local businesses and education systems in career path development programs targeting the agriculture career sector.

In the recent budget, Governor Tony Evers also offered critical assistance for dairy farmers in his budget by increasing funding for county Ag Agents, organic and grazing specialists, expanding the Farm-to-School program, expanding the Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin Program and critical farmer mental health programs, just to name a few. Unfortunately many of these ideas were cut or significantly reduced by Republicans from the final version of the budget.

jeff-smithMy colleague Representative Don Vruwink (D-Milton) and I recently introduced SB 453/AB 495 to create a small farm diversity grant program aimed at helping small farms try new agricultural ventures. We also teamed up to introduce SB 455/AB 500 which will help families save money when passing their farm onto their extended family.

There’s no shortage of good ideas, but we can do more. There’s too much at stake to tell dairy farmers to “get big or go out.” The dairy crisis doesn’t stop at the farmer’s doorstep. As policymakers and consumers, we must invest in our small family farms and encourage innovation to preserve our farming heritage in Wisconsin.

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