Thursday, June 09, 2011

WLA Letter to Legislators About WiscNet

Your response to WLA's legislative alert has been tremendous. In addition to getting the word out to library supporters, WLA has also sent this letter to all legislators and Governor Walker, outlining our support for WiscNet and broadband expansion. A similar letter has been sent to several newspapers; we encourage you to add your own story (e.g., how much would Internet cost for your organization if WiscNet goes away?) and contact your local paper with this information.

On Friday, June 3, the state legislature's Joint Committee on Finance passed Motion 489 that would eliminate WiscNet as a department or office within the UW-Madison Department of Information Technology and eliminate $1.4 million in funding for WiscNet for 2012-13. The motion would also require the UW to return federal grant money that has already been awarded for a broadband expansion project, apparently because of concerns that that this project competes with BadgerNet.

We respectfully ask that you save taxpayers millions of dollars and move to delete sections 23-26 of Motion 489 on the floor of the legislature before the budget bill is approved and sent to Governor Walker for his signature.

It seems helpful first to define WiscNet and BadgerNet, since confusion exists about the difference between the two and how they would be affected by the UW-Extension’s federal broadband grant project. The Department of Administration (DOA) website describes BadgerNet Converged Network (BCN, or BadgerNet) as the “state-wide network serving all 72 counties by providing wide area network, Internet transport and video applications to state government and educational entities in Wisconsin. The BCN also provides network services to municipalities and other governmental entities such as Tribal nations, technical colleges and public and private K-12 schools in various locations in the state.”

WiscNet is one of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) listed by DOA for non-state agency BadgerNet customers. WiscNet was created in 1990 by the UW, long before most telephone companies could even be called ISPs.  Information from WiscNet indicates that the $1.4 million cut by Joint Finance is not a subsidy to WiscNet from the UW, but payment for technical support services provided by WiscNet.

WiscNet has become the ISP of choice for 450 educational and community institutions: all public institutions of higher education, 95% of public libraries and 80% of schools currently use WiscNet. If WiscNet operations are changed as proposed by Joint Finance, these institutions would pay two to three times MORE for Internet service from for-profit vendors. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that taxpayers would foot the increased bill, or library patrons and students in your district would no longer have the access they need and want. But the cost is much greater than just dollars. The successful cooperative and collaborative network that WiscNet has fostered between higher education, K-12 education and libraries for the past 16 years could disappear.

For-profit telecommunications companies, some represented by AccessWisconsin, seem most concerned about the UW-Extension’s federal broadband grant project, already underway. AccessWisconsin members, who are valued partners in BadgerNet, say that they should not have to compete with a taxpayer-funded agency. The irony is that telecommunications companies, including AccessWisconsin members, currently benefit from about $90 million annually in taxpayer funding through the Universal Service Fund to enhance their ability to provide cost-effective service in rural areas.  We would say that is a wise investment.
AccessWisconsin also argues that the federal broadband grant to UW-Extension is a duplication of BadgerNet that would weaken that network. While BadgerNet provides great benefit to many institutions (with a taxpayer subsidy of $16.8 million annually, by the way), pricing is still too high for many institutions.  BadgerNet provides 100Mbps service at $6,000 per month and a 1,000Mbps service at $49,500 – or almost $600,000 per year! If the UW grant project is completed, an institution will be able to get 1,000Mbps for only $10,000 annually.  While BadgerNet prices are currently under negotiation and may be decreased somewhat, the return on the investment of the UW project is clear.

Finally, we find it difficult to understand why AccessWisconsin is so opposed to a federal broadband grant when its members in fact sought a similar grant for themselves. DOA and the BadgerNet Access Alliance (BNAA), which includes AccessWisconsin and larger telecommunications companies, received $23 million in federal funding to enhance BadgerNet via expansion of broadband fiber throughout the state.  WLA met with BadgerNet vendors several times during the grant process and supported the DOA/BNAA federal grant proposal. Imagine our frustration when the needs of 467 schools and libraries were dashed because BNAA and DOA could not successfully negotiate the contract, and the money was returned to the federal government.

We also understand that the UW used an open bid process to seek a partnership with for-profit phone companies on their broadband project, but none agreed to participate.

Please move to delete sections 23-26 of Motion 489 on the floor of the legislature before the budget bill is sent to Governor Walker for his signature. Please keep WiscNet as it currently operates and also allow the UW broadband project to move forward.

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter.

Rhonda Puntney, President
Wisconsin Library Association

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