MADISON, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin System has quietly withdrawn from a new contract with broadband provider WiscNet, raising questions about whether libraries and public schools that also rely on the provider might have to pay more for Internet access.
WiscNet, a nonprofit organization, provides cheap Internet access for UW institutions, about 300 public schools, all state agencies and 15 of the state's 17 public library systems. UW System has partnered with WiscNet for years, providing employees and infrastructure such as fiber optics.
The partnership has been a hot-button topic for Republicans, who contend the system is subsidizing telecommunications beyond its needs and putting private providers at a competitive disadvantage. They included a provision in the 2011-13 budget that requires the system to disengage with WiscNet by July 1, 2013. A provision in the 2013-15 budget Gov. Scott Walker plans to sign Sunday would give the system another six months to extricate itself.
System officials have insisted they're doing nothing wrong. In the face of the budget language, though, they began seeking contracts for a new Internet provider.
Despite the complaints about the system's ties to WiscNet, UW officials notified the organization last month they intended to award the contract to them. Two other service providers, AT&T and SentryLink, challenged the decision.
Procurement officials at UW-Madison managed the bidding process on the system's behalf. Darrell Bazzell, the school's vice chancellor for finance and administration, said Friday that the system and WiscNet never entered into formal negotiations on the contract itself but had intended to move system employees to WiscNet's payroll and bar WiscNet from using UW infrastructure.
Mike Hardiman, director of UW-Madison's purchasing services arm, said in a letter Thursday responding to AT&T's challenge that the bid process was conducted properly. But he concluded the letter by saying that after consulting with UW System administrators and the Board of Regents, the contract award would be withdrawn. Hardiman said the system would build its own network.
"Business and political considerations — including the potential for ongoing appeals, litigation and legislative changes — have created uncertainty to our campus operations and the future of our network," Hardiman wrote.
Bazzell defended the decision, saying challenges to the contract probably wouldn't end and severing ties with WiscNet follows the Legislature's edict that the system can't share its telecommunication assets with outsiders.
"The UW System is making the right decision ..." Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said in a statement. "A free market based system will be a win for students, taxpayers and private enterprise in Wisconsin."
State schools Superintendent Tony Evers, though, said the move creates uncertainty about whether WiscNet can survive without UW's workers, infrastructure and fees.
Evers warned WiscNet members may have to turn to commercial providers that charge more. A state audit released in December found WiscNet members paid about $500 per month for Internet services that would have cost $1,100 or more elsewhere.
"Now, hundreds of school districts and public libraries are facing the loss of Internet access, and, in an era of reduced budgets, an unknown added cost ..." Evers said in a statement. "To make matters worse, they are left trying to get all this sorted out before the start of school."
WiscNet Executive Director Dave Lois didn't return a message Friday. The provider posted an unattributed note on its website, saying the organization is financially strong and its members provide ample revenue to continue.
"Isn't it a sad day when political pressures from telephone company lobbyists keep us from working together? It's frustrating, yet fascinating. Seriously," the note said. "Stay tuned; the best is yet to come."