A (maybe not so) Strange Marriage

It’s rare that my two worlds (energy efficiency and community broadband) collide, but at an energy conference in October, I heard the strangest thing… the Wisconsin Public Service Commission is considering using some of the surplus efficiency funding to expand broadband access in rural areas.  My broadband advocate self started cheering, while my efficiency self started panicking.  So let’s unpack this a bit.

Focus on Energy has been an award winning energy efficiency utility (EEU) delivering efficiency to the state of Wisconsin for over 15 years.  It’s primary funding mechanism is a line item on everyone’s utility bill that’s there expressly to collect funds for energy efficiency (EE) programs and cannot be used for anything else.  The Focus program has also been under attack from Governor Walker’s administration since he took office and will be facing a 7% budget decrease next year. As we are all aware, when someone has been decreasing your budget for years then starts to shift it elsewhere, this causes a certain amount of panic and people tend to dig in and protect what they currently hold with even more fervor.

The PSC argument for using EE funding for broadband is that it will enable Wisconsin’s rural citizens to access EE programs through the internet, because remember, the Focus funds can only be used for efficiency programs.  You should also know that almost all efficiency are subject to cost/benefit testing and justification, something that last mile fiber is unlikely to pass.  Unfortunately, between the legal requirements that these funds be used for efficiency and cost/benefit testing, I think it’s unlikely that this effort will survive a legal challenge.

Here’s where my split personality reunifies and I become much less conflicted… I think the Wisconsin PSC has actually hit on something really interesting in this attempt. Electric utilities and telecom utilities frequently share infrastructure, they have similar needs for trained service personnel, and as we’ve discussed many times here on this blog, developing rural broadband infrastructure helps rural economies in so many different ways. What if, instead of reallocating EE funds to support broadband development, they took another look at all those taxes on our telephone and internet bills and reallocated some of those funds to support last mile fiber?  Send those funds to Focus, which already has the program infrastructure in place, and expand its mission to support local broadband efforts.

Already I can see so many potential issues I could easily write an entire white paper on “Things to be Concerned About” but if nothing else, recent events have made it abundantly clear that we need to reinvest in our rural communities, break out of our self-imposed silos, and start to think creatively about solving our problems together.


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