Democrat Russ Feingold called Thursday for the federal government to treat broadband internet service as a public utility as part of his Badger Innovation Plan.
Feingold, who is running against U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, for the Senate seat Feingold lost to Johnson in 2010, touted his plan to expand high-speed internet access to rural areas during a visit with the La Crosse Tribune’s editorial board.
“Up to a million people (in Wisconsin) do not have adequate internet,” Feingold said, which limits not only individuals’ ability to connect to digital infrastructure but also businesses’ ability to compete globally.
Feingold told a story of students in rural areas who aren’t able to get internet access at home and so drive to town to do homework.
“They park outside the library or the high school or the local college, and there are a couple different cars there and they’re not up to no good — they’re just trying to get wi-fi,” Feingold said. “You can’t really compete as a business or a student without internet.”
Feingold called for a “robust” federal program of broadband build-outs by both private and public providers to bring rural residents up to the same level of service as people in the city, at similar rates — similar to federal subsidies in the 1930s that expanded electricity to those same areas.
“This needs to be a utility,” Feingold said. “Everybody needs to have it. You can’t let these three big companies have control.”
Feingold’s plan criticizes congressional efforts to pass legislation limiting net neutrality, which would allow Comcast, AT&T and Charter to charge websites such as Netflix and Google for faster content delivery.
“We have to break the hold of these corporate interests when it comes to something like this,” Feingold said.
Feingold called for a federal law to prevent states from disallowing municipalities, co-ops and rural electric companies to make broadband accessible to all. He said his would benefit small businesses, allowing them to better compete, and help students and families living in places the three large companies don’t cover.
His plan also calls for further investment in technical education and greater support for Trade Adjustment Assistance, which helps workers transition into new careers, as well as investment in more traditional infrastructure.
Feingold said his policies are efforts that should find support from both major parties and, more important, the people of Wisconsin.
“People really want us to work across the parties and embrace bipartisanship,” Feingold said. “It’s not long ago that these were bipartisan issues.”
Feingold pointed at immigration reform, climate change and health care as issues that used to bring Democrats and Republicans together. He said he believes he can find common ground to make real changes if re-elected.