The University of Wisconsin reportedly has narrowly avoided having to return a broadband stimulus grant valued at nearly $30 million.

The university won the funding to expand its existing WiscNet broadband network to serve as many as 182 anchor institutions and to facilitate more affordable broadband for approximately 139,000 households and 9,000 businesses.

But the award came under fire from AT&T, the incumbent carrier in much of Wisconsin, and several other carriers, including some independent telcos. The carriers argue the stimulus funding will empower WiscNet to compete with them unfairly, since public dollars will fund this ‘competitive’ expansion.

WiscNet supporters say AT&T was influential in persuading Wisconsin legislators to include several provisions in an omnibus bill that would specifically have prohibited the university from receiving funds from the NTIA for the proposed project. The legislation also would have prevented the university from providing communications services in competition with telecom providers, eliminated WiscNet as a department within the university and stopped state funding for WiscNet.

The proposed legislation drew considerable public outcry.  Perhaps as a result, reports emerged from local Wisconsin media yesterday indicating that legislators have now hammered out compromise legislation that would allow the university to receive the stimulus funding. The compromise legislation, however, includes a provision that would end WiscNet as of July 31, 2013 unless all parties involved are able to reach an agreement on how the system would operate going forward.

The matter will not be fully resolved until legislators vote on the bill and the bill is signed by the governor, which is expected to happen soon.

The state of Wisconsin already returned a broadband stimulus award that would have expanded its BadgerNet network.  In addition, state legislators have attempted to limit the public utility commission’s ability to oversee carriers such as AT&T.


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