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Last Minute Budget Provision Cuts Access to Broadband for Schools, Libraries, Researchers, Targeting the Underserved

In a last minute amendment to its heavily controversial state budget bill, the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance added a provision that would greatly reduce broadband access for schools, libraries, and university researchers. The target of this harmful proposal is WiscNet, a not-for-profit Internet Service Provider cooperative that offers inexpensive and flexible broadband service to anchor institutions, provides online learning resources for public schools and libraries, and allows university researchers fast, inexpensive data upload services unavailable from private providers. This proposal by Governor Walker would force WiscNet to return $39 million in federal funds that would be used to lay fiber-optic cables across Wisconsin and would sever the relationship between WiscNet and the University of Wisconsin, which founded WiscNet over 20 years ago. In addition to negatively impacting the University’s connectivity and research capacity, the loss of this funding means that fewer rural community members would have immediate access to broadband.

This action is right in line with Governor Walker and his allies’ anti-working families agenda, as seen through his previous rejection of funding that would have facilitated high-speed transit and job creation, deregulation of telephone services that will increase phone rates, as well as the infamous curtailing of workers’ collective bargaining rights. Points 23-26 of omnibus motion 489 would eliminate the University of Wisconsin’s participation in the Building Community Capacity through Broadband (BCCB) project, effectively ending a program that would help create community-owned infrastructure and give private service providers the opportunity to compete for the business of public anchor institutions. This is good for AT&T, who owns the bulk of BadgerNet, the existing infrastructure and the BCCB network’s would-be competition, but bad for small business development in Wisconsin -- which currently ranks 43rd in broadband access nationwide. The BCCB grant was conditioned on making the technology available to every private service provider interested in serving businesses and residents in these areas, thereby increasing competition and options for small, rural communities. Without that fiber, these areas are unlikely to receive broadband service any time soon, as private broadband carriers are less motivated to invest in less profitable, rural areas.

Motion 489 would also isolate UW’s network from other institutions and cut off community access to UW’s resources.  Furthermore, Motion 489 would prevent UW from being a WiscNet customer, thereby raising the cost of WiscNet for other customers. WiscNet is significantly cheaper for public institutions than their competition, and currently serves 75% of Wisconsin’s public schools and 95% of their public libraries, two anchor institutions that PSN has identified as critical access points for underserved populations. Raising costs could have deeply detrimental effects on underserved communities’ access to the internet -- not to mention a further strain on school budgets. WiscNet will have fewer customers and be forced to spread its fixed costs out among them. This means rising costs for WiscNet and more customers for AT&T and other private providers.

In dealing with a struggling economy, states like Wisconsin need critical resources like broadband to prosper. It is undeniable that infrastructure plays a critical role in the public’s access to needed services like hospitals and schools. Students, workers, and small businesses in Wisconsin increasingly depend on infrastructure like broadband in order to function in a modern economy. As PSN has noted previously, the benefits from broadband are long-term, and as such, the facilitation of internet services must be seen as part of any comprehensive local economic development strategy.

This eleventh-hour provision is still being debated, so learn more and learn more about the provisions at http://www.wiscnet.net/.

This article is part of PSN's email newsletter, The Stateside Dispatch.
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