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Ammon Brings Local Connectivity to Idaho Schools as State Education Network Goes Dark

The City of Ammon's municipal fiber network recently stepped in to provide primary broadband access for School District 93 as the state's educational network went dark reports Local News 8. Watch the video of local coverage below.

When a judge ruled last year that the Idaho Education Network (IEN) contract between the state Department of Administration was void, an education broadband crisis loomed across the state. As the drama played out, however, local networks such as Ammon's muni, have come to the rescue to keep students connected.

Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham described an attitude characteristic of municipal networks:

"I think it's just something we do in the spirit of collaboration, and I think that's always important because when we talk about the school district and the city it's all the same people, and so anytime we can keep costs down it benefits everyone involved," Kirkham said.

CenturyLink and Education Networks of America (ENA) were providers under the contract voided last year. As CenturyLink and ENA cut off service to schools, forcing them to negotiate their own contracts, they have discovered better, more affordable broadband from local providers like Ammon.  A recent Idaho State Journal reported on several school districts:

The state, under the now-void IEN contract, had been paying Education Networks of America more than $6,000 a month for a 20 Mbps Internet service to Rockland School District. The school district will pay less than a third of that cost for a new 100 Mbps service next year.

The State Journal also discovered that numerous school districts had used fiber optic service from local providers but were forced to switch to slower service in order to obtain the IEN reimbursement. In order to get the reimbursement, West Side School District had to switch from fiber from Direct Communications, a local company, to a slow copper T1 connection from CenturyLink:

Once the IEN contract was in place, the Idaho taxpayers were saddled with paying over $8000 a month for outdated copper service to that same location.

[Direct Communications Marketing Director Brigham] Griffin said Preston [School District] was in the same boat. It had been getting fiber-optic Internet from Direct Communications, but had to switch to copper to have the state pick up the tab.

“Preston School District will now receive double their previous speed for about a fifth of the monthly cost,” Griffin said.

Though it is incredibly frustrating to see how Idaho has hurts its schools while funnelling extra tax dollars to CenturyLink, it is not as rare as you might think. Many states have these kind of "deals" with the large phone companies. We have long covered the depressing story in Wisconsin, where AT&T has successfully lobbied to hobble WiscNet, an arrangement that brings tremendous cost savings to local budgets and better connections to schools. 

This is more evidence for a point we have long made: building better networks does not necessary have to cost a lot more. We spend so much money inefficiently that eliminating these crony capitalism deals would free up significant funds to be spent more wisely.

In Ammon, Mayor Kirkham summed up the situation:

"This is always an argument for local control so whenever you have local control, then you aren't at the mercy of the decisions being made higher up the ladder and so this is one of those instances where you see that being played out," Kirkham said. 

See video

AT&T Lobbying Likely to Increase Wisconsin School, Library Telecom Costs

The University of Wisconsin recently withdrew from its contract with WiscNet, threatening the future of the network. Stop the Cap! reports the University bowed under pressure from Republican lawmakers and threats of litigation from the likes of AT&T, CenturyLink, and the Wisconsin State Telecom Association (WSTA). Costly litigation could interrupt UW's research and educational work and UW must consider its relationship with the legislature and the future of state funding.

Once again Republican legislators chose the powerful telecom lobby over taxpayers. WiscNet is a buyer coop that allows schools and libraries to keep their telecom costs lower by working together. Weakening WiscNet means the schools and libraries may have to pay higher fees just to maintain the same level of service. 

The telecom industry makes generous contributions to most Wisconsin lawmakers, but Republicans in particular have been enthusiastic about knee-capping any perceived threat to AT&T's monopoly in much of the state. With WiscNet in the cross hairs, ALEC legislators in Wisconsin can expect renewed campaign support. Senator Paul Farrow and Representative Dean Knudson, spearheading efforts to dismantle WiscNet, receive sizeable donations from WSTA, CenturyLink and TDS Telecom.

If WiscNet cannot recover from the loss of UW, local taxpayers will be the ultimate losers as they have to pay more to keep essential institutions connected. WiscNet provides economical broadband service to members all across the state and ample evidence suggest higher rates accompany private service. From the Stop the Cap! article:

Many of WiscNet’s members report that “going private” for Internet connectivity will more than double their costs. This was confirmed by Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau, which reported a member paying WiscNet $500 month for Internet service would face bills of $1,100 or more if provided by AT&T or other telecom companies.

But the benefits of WiscNet go far beyond higher costs (which are substantially higher than the example cited for larger institutions). WiscNet has enabled all manner of cost-sharing, including centralizing data storage. These are examples of how local governments and institutions can be responsible stewards of public dollars; unfortunately a majority of Wisconsin Legislators seem to believe the best use of public money is to pad the profits of AT&T.

We've written about these efforts in past years but it seems that AT&T is closer than ever to expanding its revenue from the taxpayers of Wisconsin, all with the blessing of state legislators who scream about wasted taxpayer dollars.

Responding to "Crazy Talk" - Community Broadband Bits Episode #50

For our 50th episode, we're trying something new: Lisa and I respond to three common claims made by opponents of community owned networks. We owe these three particular arguments to the Executive Director of the trade association of Wisconsin telephone companies. Each of the clips we respond to come from claims he made at a workshop at the 2012 WiscNet conference.

We play a short claim by him and then Lisa and I respond to it. For this show, we look at claims that telephone companies already serve everyone with broadband, that the rapid iteration of mobile phone technology delegitimizes public sector investment in networks, and that public investment "crowds out" private investment.

These are very common arguments offered every time a community considers building its own network, but they are quite weak. As Joey Durel, Mayor of Lafayette, so often reminds us, the big companies don't win by having good arguments. They win by buying steaks and football tickets -- lobbying. Campaign contributions help too.

At any rate, let us know if you like this format and what questions we should consider the next time we do it. We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

This show is 12 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Waukesha's WECAN Now Provides 1 Gbps to the Internet

Waukesha, Wisconsin now offers an ultra-fast connection for educational and government members. WiscNetWire reports that the region's Community Area Network (CAN) obtained 1 gigabit Internet capability in August.

We have reported on Wisconsin's efforts to expand connectivity using the CAN model of collaboration. The people of Wisconsin are hard at working connecting to each other with a combination of stimulus funding and matching local contributions.

WECAN (the Wakesha Community Area Network) now connects Carroll University, Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC), Waukesha Public Schools and the City of Waukesha. The 1Gbps connection to the Internet is now available to the entities on the network. According to the WiscNetWire article:

On August 30th, WECAN finished work on a new fiber-optic connection giving each organization a 1 Gigabit connection to the Internet. Steve Schlomann, Chief Information Officer for the School District of Waukesha, compares this upgrade to “opening a 10 lane freeway where we once had a single lane road.”

WECAN started as an idea advanced by WCTC and Carroll University. The two entities established relationships within the private and public sectors. The initial fiber network was built in 2011. From the article:

More recently, the School District of Waukesha and the City of Waukesha also joined WECAN. The school district and city worked with CableCom LLC, Cisco, Heartland Business Systems, Multimedia Communications and Engineering of Green Bay and WiscNet to build and leverage their connection. With the addition of these members, the network, which was intentionally designed to allow other local institutions to easily join and share in the benefits, is currently being shared by four organizations with intentions to continue growing.

The ease with which other groups will be able to connect to WECAN should encourage other entities to participate. Current members of the network report cost savings and increased efficiency as a benefit of the collaborative nature of the project.

In addition to ease of connecting and savings through cooperation, new members who join will get the added benefit of high capacity. Doug Uhl, IT Infrastructure Manager at Waukesha Technical College told WiscNetWire:

“The beauty and design of WECAN is to allow members to individually and jointly vision and design applications and services without concern about bandwidth,” says Uhl.

With 1 Gbps capability, the Waukesha School District has plans to make full use of the most advanced educational technology tools:

“This is a great example of cooperation that has allowed us to expand our connection speed at a reasonable cost,” explains Schlomann. “We are all very excited about this milestone!”

For Independence Day, Lessig on Independence

Larry Lessig addressed the 2012 WiscNet Conference in Madison, talking about the importance of achieving the goals of the Founders of the United States in creating a system where those making the rules were independent of corrupting influences.

About 45 minutes long, and well worth watching in entirety -- especially if you have not seen a version of this excellent presentation elsewhere.

You can get involved at Lessig's This is a key issue for community broadband because few corporations have as much power to corrupt the political system as the cable and DSL companies that want to revoke local authority of communities to build their own networks.

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.


WiscNet Under Continued Attack, Contact Elected Officials

As we feared, the compromise may have been compromised by the uncompromising power of AT&T lobbyists. Once again, we learn that they struck at the last hour and may have put local schools and libraries on the chopping block.

If WiscNet goes and stimulus funds are returned, local institutions will have to double and triple their telecom budgets just to continue receive adequate service. This is intolerable. Until we hear otherwise, we encourage people to continue contacting their elected officials [pdf] in Wisconsin to express their opinion on the matter.

Some more details here and here.

Update: The Assembly will now be meeting at 1:00 rather than this morning. Rumors abound that they are still discussing how to "compromise" on AT&T's attack on the schools and libraries.

Unfortunately, this afternoon, I'll be leaving for a short camping trip (AT&T is not going to ruin my trip) and I have some canned posts queued up, so I won't be able to cover what happens in Wisconsin immediately. For news on the stimulus grant impact, follow WI_Broadband and for news about WiscNet, follow ijohnpederson and his live blog.

2nd Update: To understand how AT&T has so much power in Wisconsin, check out who "donates" the most money.

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.


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.

Internet2 President Says Wisconsin Legislation is an Unnecessary Disaster

Internet 2 President H. David Lambert offers some sober words [pdf] to Wisconsin's Governor Walker regarding an 11th hour provision inserted into legislation by AT&T and its telco allies that will kill WiscNet, an essential telecommunications network serving libraries and schools throughout the state. We wanted to note it because it goes beyond WiscNet alone and reminds us that companies like AT&T simply have the wrong incentives to be solely trusted with the future of something as important as ensuring everyone has affordable, reliable, and fast access to the Internet.

Dear Governor Walker,

Today we write to ask for your leadership in removing sections 23-26 of the University Omnibus legislation.

For the United States to be a leader in the global economy, it is critical that government policy does not stifle innovation. One way to inadvertently undermine state and national economic competitiveness goals is to bar those who have been successful in the past from continuing to innovate while creating bureaucratic rules to limit who is eligible to provide services to the marketplace. And, without question, the University of Wisconsin's initiatives and Wisconsin's not for profit Wiscnet have been resounding successes that have changed the lives of citizens in Wisconsin and throughout the world.

Draft language Bars Innovation and Reduces Market Choice

The University of Wisconsin has long been recognized as one of the critical contributors responsible for the creation of the Internet. It was the University's faculty leaders who championed the idea of interlinked networks over distance and who prototyped those ideas in real-world settings that evolved into the Internet. Even as telephone providers steadfastly argued that the concept of the Internet would fail, faculty leaders at the University of Wisconsin built the large-scale innovation prototypes that led to the development of the global Internet.

It would be the height of irony if sections 23-26 of the University Omnibus legislation were passed, as those provisions would prohibit the University from being directly involved in proving out further developments of innovations in the Internet that it helped create. This would deny the University the ability to participate in the innovation cycle that created the market for commercial providers (including those who support the 11th hour insertion of sections 23-26) to provide their services in the first place. Commercial providers who many years ago argued that the Internet cannot succeed were wrong, and those commercial providers today who support the addition of sections 23-26 are equally wrong when they claim that proven innovation leaders like the University should be barred from participating in innovation, thereby ensuring that they cannot repeat their successes. Such an approach may benefit other countries (because the U.S. will continue to fall behind in comparison), and it may benefit profit-maximizing telecommunications entities that can then charge higher rates for services or for outdated technologies. But such restrictions surely do not benefit the citizens of Wisconsin or this country.

According to the well-known adage, "those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Here, where history provides a roadmap of what works and who made it work, those who refuse to learn from history are not only missing out on a golden opportunity, they are also jeopardizing the United State's leadership role in the global economy. Any such move that places the U.S. at risk should not be taken lightly, let alone this quickly. There simply is no need to rush to pass legislation to limit our options.

The citizens of Wisconsin know how the Internet has played a critical role in creating and growing the economy that now shapes our global business environment. The Internet creates opportunities for Wisconsin businesses to compete not just in state or regionally, but globally too. To stay competitive, Wisconsin needs the most innovative network technologies, and it needs innovative network providers like Wiscnet and the University of Wisconsin to continuously push the envelope of possibilities and assure that future innovations are possible in Wisconsin.


The Proposal would reduce the University to a Third-World Player in the Global Race for Research Leadership. The University of Wisconsin is also recognized globally as a major research institution with collaborations in science, technology and business reaching throughout the United States and globally. Big science is increasingly global, with the global high-energy physics collaboration now centered in Geneva and distributed through networks, with astronomers now reliant on networked observatories outside the US and with bioscience reliant on genome databases also networked throughout the world. Over $1B in annual research funding that flows in to the Wisconsin economy depends on the University's ability to connect globally to the critical and massive information sets available only through research and education networks, like those operated by the University, Wiscnet and Internet2.

Yet, just when other states in the country are scrambling to invest in network infrastructure to help their universities rise to meet the international research and education challenge, this legislation could essentially disconnect Wisconsin from the global research it now leads. The result would be devastating. As the only intensive research institution in the United States that would be barred from participating in its own networks, Wiscnet and Internet2, the University, with respect to the ability to participate in global research, would become an immediate equivalent of a third-world University.

With respect to the University of Wisconsin's Research programs, serviced by its own networks and Wiscnet in the state and by Internet2 at the national and global scale, the essential and global collaborative nature of the research work would be effectively ended if sections 23-26 were passed. Such sections are so sweeping and overly broad that they would render the University of Wisconsin the only research-intensive university in the country that was not permitted to participate in 21st century science, which relies on 21st century connectivity like that, provided by the University and Wiscnet.

Harm to Government Users of Services

Finally, to artificially limit competition for the provision of services to governmental entities, such as schools, libraries, community colleges and local government, will likely result in higher prices and lower quality services to such governmental entities. Forcing governmental entities to pay more for their services (while potentially receiving lower quality), is counterintuitive in this age of tremendous budget issues and emphasis on quality of education. The legislature should be looking for further ways to expand options in the marketplace for schools and libraries — not for ways to restrict such options.

We are hopeful that the last-minute language restricting Wisconsin's flexibility to innovate and compete on the global stage will be rethought by the committee and the legislature. Restricting the University from participating in innovation, restricting the private sector not-for-profit Wiscnet from competing with other private companies for the state's business and ignoring the University's role in creating the very Internet technology that these private companies now wish to profit from will not serve Wisconsin, or the nation, well.

We strongly urge the committee and legislature to reconsider and remove sections 23-26.

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.


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.