Expanding Broadband Internet Expands Access to Justice

May 2, 2021

State Bar of Wisconsin

Rotunda Report

March 26, 2021 – In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as traditionally in-person services such as schooling and health care have migrated online, many functions of Wisconsin courts have done the same. Measures to combat the spread of the virus required offices and courtrooms in Wisconsin and around the world to temporarily close, and the legal system has become more reliant on virtual meetings between attorneys and their clients and courtroom Zoom hearings. High speed, reliable internet connections have become necessary to keep the legal system timely and functioning, and the leadership of the State Bar of Wisconsin has taken notice.

On December 4, 2020, the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Board of Governors voted unanimously to support legislative efforts to expand internet broadband access across the state. The new position reads: The State Bar supports efforts to expand broadband access, meeting the minimum criteria defined by the FCC*, to all parts of Wisconsin, ensuring attorneys have the ability to effectively conduct business statewide, and Wisconsin residents have access to online research, legal forms, and self-help programs. The State Bar supports state and federal funding and grants for broadband statewide to ensure more uniform coverage across Wisconsin, as well as broadband expansion in any capital (infrastructure) legislation.

*Current FCC standards are 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed, the minimum speeds necessary to stream video or conduct normal business activities.

In discussions on the new policy position, State Bar leaders explained how expanded broadband could help to ensure that all residents of Wisconsin have access to online tools and attorneys who can help them through legal challenges.

District 2 State Bar Governor Ryan Billings of Milwaukee said the pandemic has forced a digital transition, and that there has been overwhelming bench and bar support for using Zoom to replace status conferences and other minor hearings normally conducted in-person. “This is something that is here to stay, and it means more access to justice for everyone,” Billings said. Current State Bar President Kathy Brost said that broadband expansion is a critical access to justice need to support attorneys and their clients.

Online clinics, legal assistance websites, and legal hotlines such as the State Bar’s Free Legal Answers website continue to help thousands of people with legal issues each year, and have become even more important in the last 12 months. But all of these tools require internet access, and often require high speed broadband, leaving behind thousands of Wisconsin residents. The potential for expanded access to justice that virtual hearings and online legal assistance promises can only be made real if all Wisconsinites have reliable access to broadband internet.

This problem contributes to the so-called “digital divide”—the separation between those who have reliable and affordable internet access and those who don’t. The digital divide disproportionately impacts low-income, minority, and rural households in Wisconsin. Many in the legal system have championed the use of free online legal tools as a way to help solve legal problems linked to economic security and health. Such help can put people on a path to gainful employment, economic independence, and success, but only if those online tools are available to them.

A recent front-page story in the Wisconsin State Journal highlighted geographic challenges to broadband access existing across the state. In many rural areas, reliable and high speed internet access simply doesn’t exist, and the high infrastructure cost and perceived lack of customers is a disincentive for existing providers to invest capital into expanding access there.

On the other hand, in many parts of Wisconsin, it is economics rather than geography that is the biggest barrier to connectivity. While technical access exists, the cost of internet connection is out of reach for many low-income residents. For example, in Milwaukee, 40% of households lack fixed internet, despite broadband internet providers covering the entire county. Patrick Puyleart, a public member of the State Bar’s board of Governors, echoed these concerns. “As we look at remedies, we need to include that in our considerations,” said Puyleart.

The adoption of the State Bar’s broadband policy position means that its Government Relations staff can now lobby the legislature and governor to support such measures. Governor Evers has shown his support for broadband expansion by including it as a major initiative within his “Badger Bounce Back” biennial budget proposal unveiled in February. GOP leaders in the legislature have also signaled support for broadband expansion.