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Wisconsin Internet System Targeted in Budget

Schools would see diminished access, increased costs

Jun. 15, 2011
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A few paragraphs tucked into the massive state budget could have a radical impact on how schools, research institutions and rural hospitals access the Internet.

Never debated publicly and slipped into an amendment in the final hours of the Joint Finance Committee's work on the massive state budget, the provisions would end the University of Wisconsin System's participation in WiscNet, a statewide, nonprofit, member-owned cooperative, and force it to return $39 million in federal stimulus funds for rural broadband service.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) said the item would be amended to allow UW to keep those federal funds.

WiscNet, launched in 1990, provides low-cost, high-speed Internet connectivity to public and private schools and universities, libraries, hospitals, museums and local governments.

The forced withdrawal of the UW from WiscNet threatens its very existence and would double or triple the cost of Internet access for remaining members, as well as the UW System.

Members say WiscNet provides the kind of high-speed Internet access that is not available on the private market, but which is necessary for researchers who exchange massive amounts of data with other institutions.

Although the UW System is one of the biggest users of WiscNet, the network's 450 member organizations also include the Milwaukee Public Schools, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, the Milwaukee County Federated Library System, the Milwaukee Area Technical College, Marquette University and Wisconsin Lutheran College.

“This is not just a UW issue,” said David Giroux, spokesman for the UW System.

Nor does the damage done by the budget item—sponsored by state Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) and state Rep. Pat Strachota (R-West Bend)—end with the UW's withdrawal from WiscNet.

Harsdorf and Strachota did not return the Shepherd's calls for comment on their budget proposals.

Republicans and the telecommunications lobby have argued that the nonprofit WiscNet has an unfair advantage over private, for-profit Internet and broadband service providers, such as AT&T.

But Giroux said that private corporations do not provide the kind of services needed by high-level researchers, nor do they provide it cost-effectively to institutions that do not need to transmit massive quantities of data.

Goodbye to Distance Learning and Rural Broadband

Giroux said the Republican legislators had not discussed the items with the UW prior to introducing it within the larger UW-related budget amendment on the final day of hearings. Instead, the UW was focused on the “flexibility” provisions that Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans had promoted.

In addition to the WiscNet item, the budget amendment would also:

  • Require the UW to return $39 million in federal Building Community Capacity through Broadband (BCCB) funds for four rural broadband demonstration projects in the Chippewa Valley, Platteville, Superior and Wausau areas.

Under the federal grant, the UW-Extension would facilitate broadband access to 39 Wisconsin communities and 182 institutions, including rural hospitals and clinics, libraries and schools. More than 480 jobs have been created by the grant. Institutions that would have been linked say they've been ignored because high-profit-seeking private broadband providers tend to bypass rural communities.

Critics say that the funds would have turned the UW into an Internet provider and shut private companies out of the market. But Giroux said the UW would not have become an Internet provider.

“The infrastructure would be owned at the local level,” Giroux said. “The service would be provided by WiscNet or other providers. But we'd fill a void where there is no reliable access to cost-effective broadband for these public agencies.”

(According to news reports on Tuesday, Republicans will allow UW to keep those funds.)

  • Shut down the UW-Extension's Instructional Communications Services (ICS), the UW's distance learning network that links classrooms around the state and allows instructors at one campus to instruct students at another UW campus.

“Distance learning is the way of the future,” Giroux said.

  • Force all of the UW universities to withdraw from any Internet consortium of any kind. This would terminate, for example, the UW's vital research at the South Pole and the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.

“Being part of that research requires that we have a massive Internet pipeline coming into this campus,” Giroux said. “If you force us to withdraw from it, it's a major embarrassment, a major loss. You'd turn UW-Madison into the only major research university in the country that can no longer be part of these consortiums.”

Giroux called the provision “the most glaring unintended consequence” of the budget amendment.


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