Broadband Vouchers Funded by Energy Dollar

By Xyla Joelle L. Fernandez

Dec 05, 2016 10:03 AM EST

Nearly 100,000 rural Wisconsin residents will be receiving $50 vouchers from the state if they sign up for new high-speed internet service or upgrades, under a proposal that would be funded by the state's electricity customers using money that's supposed to be spent promoting energy savings.

The $50 incentives, approved this past week by the state Public Service Commission, would cost $5 million and are part of more than $60 million in utility customer funds that Gov. Scott Walker's administration wants to reallocate to expand broadband in rural areas of the state.

Broadband vouchers have come under criticism from energy-efficiency advocates as well as from the company that runs Wisconsin's Focus on Energy program, which helps utility customers save energy through discounts on LED light bulbs and energy-efficient appliances as well as other initiatives.

$35 million would come from reserves in the Universal Service Fund, through a bill Walker has asked the Legislature to pass in 2017 in order to expand state broadband grants. The remainder taps electric and natural gas ratepayers' funding from the Focus on Energy program's reserves.

Commission spokeswoman, Elise Nelson, said the vouchers are part of the broader kit that will be sent to rural homes, including a variety of energy-saving home devices from smart power strips to LED light bulbs to rebates for smart thermostats.

Andy Olsen, who works in the Madison office of the Environmental Law and Policy Center said that the PSC or Public Service Commission continues to try to fit a square peg in a round hole by using Focus Energy to subsidize rural internet service campaign.

Past non-energy spending from utility ratepayers' bills included $18.3 million spent to pay assistant district attorneys around the state, plus millions spent on the Wisconsin Works program and municipal aid payments. In total, nearly $166 million in money collected from electric ratepayers was spent on non-energy items under the administrations of Republican Gov. Scott McCallum and Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

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