Access Wisconsin Supported Broadband Stimulus Before They Opposed It

Access Wisconsin, a group of telephone providers working with AT&T to kill a network essential for schools and libraries across the state, claims that using taxpayer money is unfair competition. It is a fascinating argument from a collection of companies that rakes in various state and federal subsidies.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported these statements from Access Wisconsin this week:

"This is by far the greatest assault we've ever felt from the University of Wisconsin Extension," said Mark Weller, president and CEO of Access Wisconsin, which represents 30 mostly small, rural telecommunications providers. "It's totally inappropriate.

"When services are available through the private sector at a competitive rate and we have to compete against yet another entity that is being funded by the taxpayers, that's just not fair."

Those statements came after increasing outrage around the state following the news that their lobbyists waited until the 11th hour to suddenly insert a provision into an omnibus bill that would kill WiscNet and require the state to return multiple broadband stimulus awards expanding telecommunications services in unserved areas.

But back in February of 2010, when Access Wisconsin was receiving a similar broadband stimulus award, it had a different attitude.

“The Recovery Act grant will bring fiber optic broadband to areas where it would otherwise be too expensive to build.  There aren’t enough customers to justify the cost of the investment without the help of these funds," Weller said.  “The federal grant, along with a 20% state match, is providing the kind of infrastructure for rural schools and libraries that will meet their needs for decades.”
 
The new fiber optic broadband connections will provide new education and economic opportunities in 380 largely rural communities across Wisconsin.  Schools and libraries in those communities will gain dramatically expanded telecommunications access, while the installation of new infrastructure will help make broadband access available for businesses and residents.

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But that award fell through because AT&T and Access Wisconsin didn't read the rules. When they found that they had to share network assets built with all that free money, they balked and returned the money. Which means, hundreds of communities across Wisconsin don't have 'dramatically expanded telecommunications access.' In fact, hundreds of communities need better services -- services that Access Wisconsin readily admitted they cannot provide absent taxpayer subsidies.

So, when Access Wisconsin claims this week that:

"When services are available through the private sector at a competitive rate and we have to compete against yet another entity that is being funded by the taxpayers, that's just not fair."

They know very well that those services are not available through the private sector at a competitive rate.

But what about the argument that they should not have to compete against a network funded by taxpayers? Don't forget, that these same providers are always telling us about how much competition there is -- that is why they needed to be deregulated in Wisconsin a few months ago.

Professor Andy Lewis of UW Extension Service reminded me that at least 15 members of Access Wisconsin have received federal money through the Rural Utility Service for their networks. Isn't it then unfair for WISPs and other private providers to have to compete against Access Wisconsin members living off the public dole?

Make no mistake, Access Wisconsin doesn't want fair, doesn't care about fair, and wouldn't even know fair if it competed Access Wisconsin upside the head. Access Wisconsin wants to protect broadband scarcity because it allows them to charge rates above the cost of providing services. Under stimulus rules, the networks being built have to be available to all parties under fair terms -- so these are actually an opportunity for Access Wisconsin members to use better networks to expand their services!

Taking profits from de facto monopoly territories and dumping it into campaign contributions and lobbying to protect those profits is a no-brainer for profit-maximizing companies. What is curious is why Wisconsin would put up with a Legislature that envisions local schools and libraries as chum for telco sharks. What happened to fiscal responsibility? Schools and libraries need WiscNet and the broadband stimulus to operate efficiently and provide the best opportunities to their communities.