Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Information on Points 23-26 in Omnibus Motion 489

Wisconsin Valley Library Service (WVLS), a local government library system entity which serves 36 public libraries and branches across 7 counties:  Clark, Forest, Langlade, Lincoln, Marathon, Oneida, and Taylor.

I will open with some context, painting a brief picture of how WVLS and its member libraries consume network and Internet services.  Then I will clarify each of the four major points of concern in omnibus motion 489, points 23-26, and explain how they will impact Central Wisconsin communities (from a library oriented perspective).  While the Central Wisconsin library and K12 community will certainly be impacted, it is the Wausau community that will see the biggest direct impact as it is most effected by the millions of federal grant dollars that will no longer be available.

Opening Comments:
There has been much confusion as to the nature of WiscNet services vs. Badgernet Converged Network (BCN) vs. AT&T or other private telecommunications services so first, let me provide some context which should help clarify.
WVLS is a member of WiscNet and utilizes WiscNet as its Internet Service Provider (ISP), providing internet connectivity to all but two of our libraries over Wisconsin TEACH/Federal eRate subsidized Badgernet Converged Network (BCN) data lines.  Our Wide Area Network (WAN) consists of the WVLS aggregation site or “central site” with 34 remote sites, each connecting back to the WVLS central site via BCN data lines. 

So to use an apt analogy that I unfortunately can’t take credit for, BCN provides the hose, WiscNet (or another ISP) supplies the water.  One can hook up their BCN hose to any of several State of Wisconsin approved ISPs.  WiscNet is on that list and for WVLS and its member libraries, is the most cost effective.  The conversation should not be about BCN vs. WiscNet, as that would be like having a conversation about garden hoses vs. a water source.  It just doesn’t make sense.
The WVLS central site maintains two “circuits” or virtual connections over a single physical data line (two smaller hoses within a larger pipe).  One of those circuits connects us to our WAN members; the other connects us and all of our WAN members to our Internet Service Provider, currently WiscNet.  The total bandwidth connecting those remote sites back to WVLS is approximately 100 Megabits per second (Mbps).  WVLS currently connects the WAN to the Internet at 30Mbps, about one third of the total potential consumption by member libraries.  At first glance, only maintaining a third of the potential bandwidth consumption may seem like a disservice to the member libraries, but in actuality, the libraries average peak usage is just under the 30Mbps.  That ratio is efficient for our system.

Our cost for Internet and membership services through WiscNet is approximately $12,500.00 annually and this is shared by our connected member libraries.  Our cost for the central site BCN line is about $3000.00 annually and most of our connected members each have a $1200.00 annual cost for their own BCN lines.  This combination of communications framework and low cost Internet data transport is a real boon to public entities like libraries and schools, especially those in the most rural areas. 

Point 23:
[Telecommunications Services: Prohibit the Board of Regents, the UW System, any UW institution, or the UW-Extension, directly or indirectly, from doing any of the following: (a) receiving funds from any award from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) under the U.S. Department of Commerce for the Building Community Capacity through Broadband (BCCB) project; (b) disbursing, spending, loaning, granting, or in any other way distributing or committing to distribute any funds received with respect to, budgeted to, or allocated for the BCCB project; and (c) participating in the planning, organization, funding, implementation or operation of the BCCB project.  In addition, require the Board of Regents to reduce the amount expended on telecommunications services during the 201-13 biennium by the total value of any funds, goods, or services that have been or will be distributed or committed to be distributed by or on behalf of the Board of Regents, the UW System, any UW institution, or the UW-Extension on or after May 1, 2011, to any participant, contractor, or supplier related to the BCCB project.]

The Building Community Capacity through Broadband (BCCB) grant is intended to support demonstration efforts in four Wisconsin communities, one of which is Wausau.  These are pilots, or demonstration exercises intended to discover the value of community owned Community Area Network (CAN) infrastructure.  The grant funded project is explicitly designed to offer private telecommunication providers access, so they may compete for service offerings to connected public anchor institutions.  

These demonstrations are designed to show public and private sectors, as well as community members and taxpayers the value a CAN might bring to all parties involved.  Point 23 describes the elimination of University of Wisconsin’s leadership participation in this grant which, all things considered, would effectively kill it.  The need for such intervention is questionable as there is no unfair competition created in the project.  The grant dollars are not being utilized for a huge research project. It’s a matter of whether any business opportunities are created (successful BCCB project demonstration), or the market remains unchanged (unsuccessful or legislature prevented BCCB project demonstration).  Private telecommunications companies will potentially benefit from a successful demonstration.

What it means to Wausau and Central Wisconsin constituents:
Wausau is one of the demonstration communities.  Connecting many of the Wausau Area community anchor institutions (schools, libraries, colleges, hospitals, and various city-county services) is a planned project that has been in development for many years and has a long term plan behind it.  Leadership in this CAN project is found in Chet Strebe, CIO of Northcentral Technical College.  The BCCB project works in conjunction with a mission that’s already in place, allowing the Wausau CAN project to grow faster than expected in return for providing an example of what a CAN may offer to a community in the form of technology benefits. 

Planning reports of the BCCB project indicate that this project would bring several million federal NTIA dollars into the community and would help further develop community owned infrastructure that is already in development.  The BCCB grant is creating a (currently non-existent) network in Wausau to which local and national private telecom providers can connect and offer advanced services.  Currently available private infrastructure is neither adequate nor cost effective to accommodate projected growth beneficial to public/private partnership and beneficial to economic expansion.

The prevention of this project would reach out beyond Wausau.  As a CAN member/subscriber, WVLS would gain low cost access to additional bandwidth which would allow us to connect to our members via the BCN line at the full 100Mbps of the pricing tier we can afford.  We would have a second data line via the CAN, which we could use to connect to the most competitive ISP available (in all fairness, likely WiscNet under current pricing models).  This combination would allow us to serve nearly 100Mbps of Internet service to member libraries, along with all of our other network services.  Maintaining our 30% peak usage ratio means the libraries could utilize a combined 300Mbps (an average of just under 10Mbps each) bringing their service levels in line with modern needs and demands.  If the CAN stalls, we would be limited to sharing our 100Mbps BCN line with WAN and Internet connectivity limiting us to a maximum of 50Mbps of Internet served, or about 150Mpbs total library service, which is an average of just over 4Mbps each; a very limiting figure in today’s information rich societal needs.

Point 24:
[Modify current law to specify that the Board of Regents shall not offer, resell, or provide telecommunications services, directly or indirectly, that are available from a private telecommunications carrier to the general public or to any other public or private entity.  Define telecommunications services as including data and voice over Internet protocol services, Internet protocol services, broadband access and transport, information technology services, Internet access services, and unlit fiber.]

Point 24 is questionable as there is already an explicit statement (on page 8 of motion 489) that these actions are already discussed and prevented under current law.  It is possible that the intent is to “update” current law with additional limitations and/or terminology, but the point is moot as the UW, to my knowledge, does not participate in any such actions (since they are already prohibited by law).

What it means for Wausau and Central Wisconsin constituents:
I find myself confused by the apparent redundancy of Point 24.  This point may be better addressed by UW staff directly if any additional implications are to be considered.

Point 25:
[Prohibit the Board of Regents, the UW System, and UW institution, or the UW-Extension from becoming or remaining a member, shareholder, or partner in or with any company, corporation, non-profit association, join venture, cooperative, partnership, consortium, or any other individual or entity that offers, resells, or provides telecommunications services or information technology services to members of the general public, or to any private entity, or to any public entity other than the Board, the UW System, any UW institution, or the US-Extension.]

Point 25 is already under heavy scrutiny by key members of the legislature.  Staff members in Sen. Kapanke’s office (and possibly others) are working to revise the language.  It basically states that the UW group of institutions can’t connect to anyone, anywhere, but themselves.  This has generated media attention because it would put the UW into a very tight and small container.  It is essential for the UW to be connected to the world; and vice versa.    

What it means for Wausau and Central Wisconsin constituents:
The UW is a world renowned academic system and a vast and invaluable information resource for Wausau and all of Wisconsin.  Preventing telecommunications connectivity outright, or even forcing it through the limiting constraints of current private sector infrastructure, would be detrimental to University of Wisconsin Marathon County, Northcental Technical College, local private colleges, many local and regional hospitals, local libraries, and K12s, and to other local public institutions.  Losing access to the shared resources represented by the UW group would impede progress for Wausau’s Community Area Network and severely limit local public and private technology and network infrastructure growth for many years.

Point 26:
[Specify that WiscNet could no longer be a department of office within the UW-Madison Division of Information Technology beginning July 1, 2012, and delete $1,400,00 PR from the UW System related to WiscNet in 2012-13.  Require the Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct a program audit and a financial audit of the Board of Regents’ use of telecommunication services and relationship with WiscNet.]

WiscNet is a 501(c)(3) entity and separate from the UW group, and the specifically named UW-Madison Division of Information Technology.  As a WiscNet member and service consumer and as a general technology services consumer, UW has an interest in minimizing the resources it commits to technology services. 

What it means for Wausau and Central Wisconsin constituents:
The potential for damage to the Wausau and Central Wisconsin community is severe.  Prohibiting UW from being a WiscNet consumer, coupled with not allowing UW to save costs by closely partnering with their cooperative, means increased costs all around.  Even if WiscNet survives the loss of UW as an eligible consumer, WiscNet’s overhead would remain, and would be distributed among a smaller contributing pool of members.  This will in all likelihood be unsustainable. 

Final Comments:
If the telecommunications providers had the infrastructure, the capacity, and the pricing to offer the services needed by public sector in a way that was cost effective to taxpayer supported institutions, I would be all for utilizing the market competition to gain the best services and use my limited technology dollars to their utmost efficiencies. That landscape does not currently exist.

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