For a kid growing up in rural northern Wisconsin, attending the state university offers a key avenue to broaden career opportunities or gain skills to better run the family farm. In recent years, as public institutions like the University of Wisconsin (UW) have increasingly embraced online courses and flexible degree options, the university’s resources may seem more accessible than ever—but only if you live in a part of the state that has adequate and affordable broadband.
UW has long been devoted to serving the public interest, cultivating one of the biggest and most ambitious extension programs in the country over the last century. “The Wisconsin Idea,” first articulated by Governer Robert LaFollette and University President Charles Van Hise, was a vision for the university in which its academic activities were connected to every local community. Van Hise declared in 1904: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.” It suggests that “the boundaries of campus are the boundaries of the state.”
The Wisconsin extension system, which began as mail correspondence programs and lecture tours, now serves nearly 150,000 students a year through regular coursework and continuing education classes. Online courses began to appear during the late 1990s. Today, students can access all of the virtual options through Wisconsin eCampus, which offers everything from online certificates to doctoral degrees. There is even a new “flexible degree” option which lets students move at their own pace and allows the use of free resources, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), to promote affordability.
The Wisconsin eCampus—featured in New America’s policy report State U Online—could be the innovation that enables the “Wisconsin Idea” to be fully realized. But a critical roadblock remains: ubiquitous and affordable access to broadband. According to a 2011 report by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), nearly 30 percent of households in Wisconsin don’t have high-speed access. A statewide consumer survey by LinkWISCONSIN estimated that broadband adoption is about 64 percent overall. Most of these unconnected households are in rural communities, where broadband access can be prohibitively expensive—if it’s even available at all. Fifteen percent of those without broadband rely on dial-up Internet service, which is completely inadequate to stream lectures or participate in real-time, interactive coursework.
In the major metropolitan areas, consumers may have as many as five different providers offering high-speed wired or wireless broadband service. But choices are scarce and speeds low in the more remote parts of Wisconsin. Access is likely limited to wireless, which doesn’t require as much physical infrastructure but is slower, more unreliable, and often encumbered with costly data caps.
And there’s little incentive for large Internet service providers to improve their existing offerings. In fact, as part of AT&T’s recently announced plan to transition to an all-IP network, the company acknowledged that it will not deploy more reliable and faster wired broadband to underserved communities, but only offer slower and more expensive 4G connectivity.
Publicly funded projects could be part of the solution. For example, the FCC created the Connect America Fund in 2011, restructuring a portion of the existing telephone-based Universal Service Fund to support broadband connectivity in rural areas as well. But only incumbent local telephone companies are eligible for the subsidies, and the two biggest—AT&T and Verizon—declined to participate in the program and expand their DSL offerings into currently unserved areas. Meanwhile, many of the smaller providers, including a number of wireless ISPs which serve some of the hardest-to-reach places, can’t participate in the program unless the eligibility requirements are changed.
While they are not interested in adequately connecting underserved areas, providers like AT&T have also actively fought to stifle any competition from other networks receiving public funding. This included attacking WiscNet in 2011, a non-profit co-op dedicated to providing next-generation Internet access to most of Wisconsin’s schools and libraries. AT&T and other private telecoms pushed for a bill that would have prevented the UW system from supporting WiscNet. Had the legislation passed, the University would have had to return $37.5 million in federal stimulus funds that it had received through the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) to expand the network’s reach and capacity to bolster the UW-Extension system. Major telecom companies have also lobbied against municipal networks in the state, including a next-generation fiber-to-the-home network owned by the public electric utility in Reedsburg, WI, which received a BTOP grant to serve rural residents.
A public show of support managed to help save WiscNet and UW-Extension was able to continue with its efforts to improve connectivity for education institutions across the state. The university also created the Center for Community Technology Solutions with the explicit goal of “leverag[ing] and extend[ing] the education and outreach work” begun through the BTOP program. These are positive steps taken by the University to find sustainable ways to address a critical infrastructure problem for certain parts of Wisconsin. But policymakers and the public will need to do more to ensure the “The Wisconsin Idea” endures and prospers in the digital age.