Wisconsin’s Public Internet Coop Threatened By Budget Bill

Provisions added to Wisconsin’s budget bill would force the University of Wisconsin system to return $37 million in federal grants meant to expand broadband Internet access in the state, and also prevent the university system from supporting the non-profit cooperative WiscNet, which provides high-speed Internet to local governments, schools, libraries, universities and hospitals.According to The Wisconsin State Journal, the provision was inserted into the bill by the state Legislature’s budget committee two weeks ago. Republican lawmakers, backed by Wisconsin’s state telecommunications association, said that the government should not be providing telecommunications services.

“From our level, we don’t believe the University of Wisconsin should be using government resources to compete with the private sector,” Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association (WSTA), told the paper on June 7.

But according to Ars Technica, the provisions “would force schools to turn to Badgernet, Wisconsin’s state wide-area-network, which depends heavily on AT&T as its primary vendor.”

75 percent of Wisconsin’s schools and 95 percent of its public libraries now get Internet access from WiscNet… WiscNet became a model for educational systems across the country. It also became a target for the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association.

In a letter to the Wisconsin’s libraries and school communities sent on June 7, State Superintendent Tony Evers wrote that the provisions will “very likely make it impossible for WiscNet to continue offering Internet access.”

In addition to any affects felt by WiscNet, the proposed measures will force UW to return federal money obtained through the Building Community Capacity through Broadband project, which would have provided high-speed access to four communities: Chippewa Valley, Platteville, Superior and Wausau. The WSTA considers that project a “duplicate network” that will “stifle private investment.”

David Lois, executive director of WiscNet, told Ars Technica on Saturday that he trying to negotiate with lawmakers, but that “it’s difficult when we’re beginning at this point.”

WiscNet’s homepage states that any changes that will happen in the bill are expected to happen Monday.