UW System seeks changes to law on Internet access

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — A new law restricting how the University of Wisconsin System provides Internet access could make things difficult for students and raise costs for taxpayers, school officials told auditors in a report released Tuesday.

UW schools are members of WiscNet, a nonprofit cooperative that provides high-speed Internet services to a majority of public schools in Wisconsin and nearly all public libraries. For many members WiscNet is able to offer services at half the cost of commercial providers, in part because it's tax-exempt and also because it doesn't have to pay for marketing and other operating costs.

The telecommunications industry lobbied heavily against the setup, arguing that WiscNet was using public subsidies to compete unfairly with the private sector. Lawmakers passed a law last year that restricted the UW System's involvement in telecommunications services.

UW officials are now left with limited options they say will be more expensive and could possibly leave UW schools isolated from broader research networks.

UW System President Kevin O'Reilly called on the Legislature to reconsider provisions of the law.

"Act 32 will result in multimillion-dollar increases in network costs, forcing students and/or taxpayers to bear the greater costs," he wrote in a letter to auditors.

The letter was part of a report released by the state Legislative Audit Bureau. The report made a number of recommendations, including that UW officials explain by July 1 their plan for obtaining and providing Internet services.

The auditors said WiscNet members paid about $500 month for Internet services that would have cost $1,100 or more if provided by commercial services.

State Rep. Samantha Kerkman, a Republican co-chair of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, said she wanted to be sure the relationship between the UW System and WiscNet "hasn't gone too far." She acknowledged the importance of having broadband access available across the state, but she said she was concerned about tax dollars being used to subsidize competition from private firms.

"If we are going be in the business of providing telecommunications, we need to change some state statutes," said Kerkman, who is from the town of Randall in Kenosha County.

Her fellow co-chair, Democratic state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout of Alma, said the issue boils down to a simple question: Is the Internet a public good or is it only for private profit?

"I side with the university that this is a public good," Vinehout said.

The audit report also noted that the UW System paid WiscNet $2.3 million in prepayments for future service. The auditors said that setup could violate statutes generally prohibiting state agencies from using annual appropriations to pay for services in future years.

Reilly said the UW Administration would recover the remaining balance by June 30.

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Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.

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