The Short Story of AT&T's Attack on Schools, Libraries in Wisconsin


I wrote the following synopsis of AT&T's attack on schools and libraries in Wisconsin for  We are still waiting for the Governor to sign the bill, something that may take another week or longer apparently.

WiscNet is an Internet services co-op that provides Internet access to the vast majority of schools and libraries in Wisconsin, as well as a number of local governments. Because it’s a co-op, it can deliver lower-cost broadband to public entities than they could negotiate on their own. The arrangement between WiscNet schools and governments saves Wisconsin taxpayers millions of dollars each year and offers services that private companies like AT&T won’t provide.

Despite WiscNet’s proven utility throughout the state, AT&T and its incumbent allies (a group called Access Wisconsin) attempted to murder WiscNet in the back alleys of Madison, Wisconsin’s capital. But following a dramatic outpouring of public support for the network, lawmakers compromised and merely placed it on death row.

AT&T dumps millions into Wisconsin politics for a reason — to enact its agenda. When it furtively inserted a few provisions into a budget bill in the 11th hour a few weeks ago, legislators went merrily along without asking any questions.

These provisions would have effectively shut WiscNet down, and they would have required the University of Wisconsin, a premier research institution globally, to withdraw from Internet2 and other research networks. They also would have forced the University of Wisconsin Extension to return federal broadband stimulus grants that had already been used to break ground on projects to improve connections in rural areas with inadequate connections. Returning those grants would have cost $27.7 million over 5 years to the involved communities and killed almost 500 jobs.

Why did AT&T do this? Access Wisconsin claimed stimulus-funded networks are "unfair" competition. Yet, it had applied for and received federal broadband stimulus grants the year before! Unfortunately for Access Wisconsin, that award had to be returned because it hadn't read the rules that would require making the funded infrastructure open access. Whoops.

Fortunately, a broad coalition supporting WiscNet responded to these threats by flooding elected officials with phone calls, letters, and site visits (a lesson to those who would provoke librarians). The legislators soon came to a compromise, but a few days later, AT&T (with its unparalleled lobbying clout in Wisconsin) undid the compromise before it could pass. A lesson to all those who work for the public interest: It is not over until signed by the executive.

WiscNet and allies again rallied and pulled WiscNet back from the hangman's noose. But the legislature couldn't let AT&T go home empty-handed, so they gave WiscNet two years to convince the legislature to let it live. And while today's stimulus funds were saved, UW cannot accept future grants to improve Internet access without approval from Madison.  The bill now sits on Governor Walker’s desk awaiting signature.

This fight in Wisconsin was just one of many in state houses across the nation this year. The Time Warner Cable anti-municipal broadband bill in North Carolina was the most prominent example, but South Carolina and Arkansas also had incumbents pushing to limit public broadband — the only real threat of competition those networks face. Positive legislation in TennesseeWashington, and New Hampshire was killed by powerful incumbents including Comcast, AT&T, and others. These companies are increasingly bold about limiting community networks that put community needs first.