Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Alert: Wisconsin Becomes First State to Turn Back A Broadband Stimulus Award

Is Move Part of Larger GOP Anti-Stimulus Federal - State Effort? 02/15/2011 San Francisco - As reported this morning by The Milwaukee Journal Standard, the Department of Administration (DOA) of the State of Wisconsin is turning back a $23 million broadband stimulus grant to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (R-WI)

First State Turn Back
This is the first time in the history of the $7.2 billion program of the Obama Administration that a state has turned back a broadband stimulus grant or loan under the federal initiative. 

On the heels of last week's first broadband stimulus oversight hearing conducted by the new Republican Congress, this development from the administration of controversial GOP Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) takes on immediate and serious national significance for the program. At the hearing, Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR) introduced draft federal legislation which seeks "to return unused or reclaimed funds made available for broadband grants." 

With this news out of Wisconsin, any serious analysis of projected spending from the Obama Administration's broadband stimulus program now needs to examine: 1. The level to which other Republican governors around the nation may direct similar "turn backs" of federal grant or loan disbursements; and, 2. The degree to which this action of the Walker Administration may signal  the GOP is enaged in a coordinated federal - state effort by to eviscerate the program. 

Grant Slated to Fund 203 Miles of New Fiber for BadgerNet Educational Project
The Wisconsin grant, initially awarded in an announcement of February 18, 2010 was issued by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the amount of $22.978 million. The award, in the middle mile project category under NTIA's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), was issued to expand the existing BadgerNet Converged Network (BCN), a state run research and education (REN) system in servcie for many years. 

BadgerNet, like scores of such systems across the nation, ties together schools and libraries to facilitate applications like distance learning, library resource sharing, and similar common uses.

According to the project fact sheet on the BCN award published by NTIA, the federally funded network expansion was to have paid for the construction of 203 new route miles of optical fiber to serve "385 school districts, 74 libraries, and 8 community colleges (including two tribal colleges)."   

New State Administrator Sees 'Unacceptable Risk' in Grant Terms
Written by reporter Rick Barret, the Journal story describes how state Department of Administration chief Mike Huebsch is turning back the federal funds under the assumption that state "taxpayers would have been on the hook for the entire $23 million if the state could not meet the grant's precise requirements."  "This is simply not an acceptable risk," Barret quotes Huebsch as having written in a recent memorandum sent to all end users of BCN. 

Huebsch, a former Republican State Assemblyman from LaCrosse, was recently appointed by Walker to manage the state's administrative department.

According to the Wisconsin Library Association's WLA Blog, Huebsch issued the memo to BCN member / user insitutions on February 11, stating "Following extensive examination of complex technical issues, and review of multiple alternatives, DOA, the BCN (BadgerNet Converged Network) vendors and the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) have exhausted all practical options. Accordingly, the BTOP grant cannot be implemented and DOA will be declining the award. Despite declining the grant, the DOA is happy to report that it will be immediately moving ahead with new BCN pricing and a new 5 year BCN contract extension which will allow DOA to meet its TEACH customers bandwidth needs."

Governor  Walker was elected in November to replace Democratic former Governor Jim Doyle (D-WI), beating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett by 5.8% of the vote. Walker has made national headlines during his brief tenure by pushing legislation that would remove the state's public employees, with the exception of most public safety employees, from prior negotiated collective bargaining agreements. 

Simultaneous Notifications
Last Friday, as the Huebsch memo was going out to BadgerNet institutions across the state, Governor Walker emailed state workers to alert them to the pending legislation, expected to be passed this week by the GOP controlled Legislature. As reported by the Green Bay PressGazette on Friday, Governor Walker simultaneously announced that he would call out the Wisconsin National Guard as needed to "ensure state services aren't interrupted."   

View The Broadband Stimulus Pipeline: Round 1 Award Locations in a larger map
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