13 Apr State criticized over BadgerNet 2 execution; some doubt benefits
Critics of the state’s plan to replace its decade-old video and data network, BadgerNet, were surprised to hear on Tuesday that a contract with an SBC-headed alliance had already been signed.
The Wisconsin BadgerNet Access Alliance, a group of companies including SBC, Verizon, Norlight, CenturyTel and local telcos, has been contracted to build BadgerNet 2 at an estimated cost of $116 million and operate it for five years, after nearly four years of planning and negotation.
Some local and regional administrators have complained that they were left out process and that their existing network resources are being ignored. Matt Miszewski, the state’s chief information officer, maintains he’s just trying to make the best network he can.
“I am not interested in control,” Miszewski said at a panel discussion on Tuesday in response to criticism that his department was using a top-down approach. “I am interested in the best deal for taxpayers.”
He spoke at the Eighth Annual Midwestern Telecommunications & Technology Conference in Milwaukee, fielding sometimes vigorous criticism of the state’s position.
In retrospect, many of the problems seem to come down to communication.
For example, some at the conference expressed surprise that the Department of Administration had already signed the BadgerNet contract on March 2. Although the information was given to at least some educational boards by mid-March, neither the governor’s press office nor the Department of Administration made a public statement – while last October, a state press release said the contract had been signed, even though it hadn’t yet.
Jonathan Barry, a former state representative, Dane County executive and University of Wisconsin regent, was one of the critics of Miszewski’s plan for BadgerNet 2. Barry is now a partner in Badger Connections, which provides network services to educational and government institutions and to the private sector.
He said that an organization of network users should have been allowed to bid out individual pieces of the network in order to maintain competition between vendors, leading to better deals.
“SBC would still get a very big [amount] of the business, but they wouldn’t be in control of the thing,” he said.
As things are, he predicts that schools will likely use the network because their costs are subsidised, but not as many unsubsidised customers will sign up as the Department of Administration needs to maintain its cost targets. If Doyle prevents the University of Wisconsin from opting out, he said, the university may end up bearing more of the cost.
He compared this project to BadgerNet 1, which was originally supposed to cost $67 million but ended up costing more than $200 after unexpected needs for system upgrades came to light, he said.
Barry also criticized the length of the contract, saying that technology develops too fast for a single five-year contract to serve the state and university’s growing demand for bandwidth and services.
“It was a four-year process assessing the needs, and by the time that’s done their needs are obsolete,” he said. “I would venture to say that within 3-4 years, wireless statewide will be quite ubiquitous, and it will be broadband … but we’re going to be working with a telephone company.”
Miszewski said the state looked at a 3-year contract as well, but it was not as cost-effective.
The University of Wisconsin System, whose campuses will account for much of the network’s use, has had a turbulent history with the Department of Administration and Miszewski.
While the university was planning to continue operating its own network, WiscNet, Governor Jim Doyle stepped in to tell it to follow the Department of Administration’s lead.
The university is now taking the developments in stride; at the conference, provost Peter Spear essentially said the network was fine as long as it could keep up with the university’s needs over the next five years.
Other educational institutions are trying to work out unexpected difficulties. In mid-March KSCADE, a network of 32 schools and higher education institutions in the Fox Valley region, discovered that equipment would have to be upgraded to be compatible with BadgerNet 2.
The cost will come to $10,000 per site, said Network Manager Mary Hansen, for two pieces of equipment.
KSCADE sets up distance education using video conferencing combined with Internet access. Hansen said that even though BadgerNet 2 will link up the entire state, regional networks are still important on the human side of things: someone has to pull the schools together.
So KSCADE has been working with the Department of Administration to see if the state can subsidize equipment costs, which according to KSCADE meeting minutes dated March 16 were thought to have been included in the BadgerNet contract originally.
If that’s not possible, school administrators may have to decide between BadgerNet integration and other projects. “It’s a hard choice for a district administrator to make,” Hansen said.
Mike Klein contributed reporting from the Telecommunications & Technology Conference.