Positive Update from Wisconsin on WiscNet, Stimulus Awards

The word from Wisconsin is mostly good. A deal has been struck that will spare WiscNet, though it will be studied for two years and then could be killed. But a fair, open study will allow WiscNet to clearly demonstrate its value -- WiscNet thrives in the light while AT&T thrives at secretive, last minute measures to gut its competitors.

Additionally, the stimulus grants appear to be safe. The Legislature apparently will not require them to be returned long after the recipients had begun implementing them. But again, there is some bad news in that UW Extension will be restricted from receiving federal grants in the future to build the networks otherwise unavailable to schools and libraries. So that is disappointing. Returning those funds would have cost a few communities $27.7 million over just 5 years.

However, nothing is settled until the Legislature fully votes on it (today and Thursday) and the Governor signs the bill. AT&T lobbyists don't get paid to create fair compromises and surely aren't finished scheming. So make sure you have made your thoughts on this matter known to your elected officials. The Rootstrikes make it easy. Don't forget to tell the Governor too -- the line-item veto is a powerful tool.

Some more details have emerged regarding the damage to local budgets that would occur if the Leg requires the stimulus awards to be returned, in the Superior schools, for instance:

"We would pay about five times more for the internet access than we already pay through Wiscnet," said Nordgren [Associate Vice Chancellor of UW Superior].

The Superior School District said they would also lose money, because they have already invested $300,000 in anticipation of the project.

"We utilized the funding from this broadband grant in order to purchase and update our website that was archaic," said Janna Stevens, Superintendent at the Superior School District.

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The Wisconsin League of Municipalities vociferously opposes language harming WiscNet [pdf]:

Finally, we strongly oppose JFC’s decisions to dismantle WisNet and to reject $37 million in federal dollars for promoting broadband service in rural Wisconsin. Many libraries and city halls around the state save taxpayers’ dollars by using WisNet as their Internet provider. This change benefits private Internet service providers at an additional cost to taxpayers. At a time when both the Administration and the Legislature are preaching government frugality, it doesn’t make sense to take away some of the very tools local governments use to reduce spending. We urge the Legislature to reverse these JFC amendments.

If there is one lesson we can take away from this fight, it is the need to build strong networks that can quickly respond to the tricks companies like AT&T can do in their power-center: state capitals and DC. This provision was obviously intended to benefit AT&T and a few other companies at the expense of all Wisconsin, particularly its schools and libraries. But WiscNet and defenders responded quickly and powerfully to the attack. And when they did respond, they did so with various arguments, including the cost to libraries and schools. If you can't tell a legislator how it impacts a budget somewhere, you probably aren't being heard.