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Wisconsin Public Internet Survives Legislative Judgment Day

Despite industry objections, the Wisconsin state Assembly approved a budget amendment that allows the public broadband network, called WiscNet, to remain online until at least 2013.

Wisconsin’s state educational Internet system is off the chopping block for the time being, as is the federal money to expand it.

Lawmakers in Wisconsin’s state Assembly voted Thursday, June 16, to approve a budget amendment that allows the public broadband network, called WiscNet, to remain online until at least 2013. WiscNet can also keep $32 million in National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA) broadband stimulus grants that Wisconsin’s Joint Committee on Finance had ordered returned earlier this month. The funding is slated to help support and expand the Internet system to rural areas in the state.

WiscNet, which provides Internet service for many of Wisconsin’s public schools and libraries, had been on tenuous ground the past two weeks. Private cable companies lobbied strongly against the continuation of WiscNet as currently structured, arguing that it was duplicating existing private sector services and was illegal under state law.

When asked if the recent anti-municipal broadband bill that passed in North Carolina had any effect on the Wisconsin Legislature’s action in establishing a compromise regarding WiscNet, Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit economic and community development consulting group, said he didn’t think so and it was more likely due to grassroots efforts of citizens.

“Honestly, I think the main issue was that [ending WiscNet and returning the federal grant funding] threatened to double or triple — or more in many cases — local telecom budgets of libraries and schools,” Mitchell said in an e-mail to Government Technology. “This made people in every district write to their elected officials.

“I think it was that the [Legislature] did not realize how far this would go and how quickly stakeholders would respond,” Mitchell added.

Had the state’s Joint Committee on Finance order stood, it would have pushed many schools and public institutions to BadgerNet, a more expensive statewide network that uses AT&T as its chief vendor.

Under the budget legislation compromise, WiscNet must undergo an audit by the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau by Jan. 1, 2013. In the meantime, WiscNet will continue to operate, but any federal grant money not committed to a specific project by June 15 will need to be approved by the Joint Finance Committee.

“We are cautiously optimistic, but our attorneys and information technology experts need time to review the new statutory language,” WiscNet said in its official statement on the network’s website. “For now, we appreciate the efforts of Rep. Robin Vos and other legislative leaders who helped broker a reasonable compromise. This allows us to move ahead without jeopardizing network memberships, while we and the state work together to better understand the complex issues involved.” 

At press time, WiscNet Executive Director David Lois had not returned messages from Government Technology seeking comment on the compromise.

Telcos Remain Undaunted

Under the law, “the board shall not offer, resell or provide telecommunications services, including data and voice over Internet services that are available from a private telecommunications carrier to the general public or to any other public or private entity.”

“That all-encompassing statute tells us that no part of the University Wisconsin system or the University of Wisconsin-Extension should be involved in a project like this,” Esbeck said.

In the immediate future, while the WSTA lost the battle, the public broadband war in Wisconsin is far from over. Esbeck revealed his organization has no plans to drop the matter.

Esbeck said that WSTA’s beef with WiscNet is not about its existence, but rather the commingling of staff and assets that the broadband network does with the University of Wisconsin and what WSTA believes is the university’s illegal participation in the grants that help fund it.

“As for our role moving forward, this will remain a top priority of the organization,” Esbeck said. “We’ll be following the audit process and will work closely with the co-chairs and members of the Joint Committee on Audit.”

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.