Debating their state's budget, Wisconsin Republicans have zeroed in on nearly $40 million in federal stimulus funds given to the University of Wisconsin to improve broadband Internet access for schools across the state, and decided the money should be returned.

But if that happens, one of the institutions foundational to the creation of the Internet will be deprived of next generation communications technology and be forbidden by law from providing Internet services that are already available in the private sector.

The budget proposals would ultimately ban government institutions from doing business with WiscNet, a non-profit Internet service provider (ISP) founded in 1989 and run from the university as a service to the state's public and private educational institutions.

Their only alternative is to buy access from a state-wide network known as BadgerNet, which is supported by AT&T and managed under a metered bandwidth plan.

This would force schools into paying three to five times more for Internet service as bandwidth usage increases, officials have estimated.

At the University of Wisconsin, one official estimated that using BadgerNet would cost up to $6 million more per year. Wisconsin's Superior school district has also reportedly said it would lose an upwards of $300,000 already invested in infrastructure they planned to connect to the improved WiscNet.

Opponents of the grant -- including a trade group called Access Wisconsin, owned by 34 different telephone companies -- say that it only serves to deter private sector commercial activity.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison was one of the key research facilities that helped give birth to the modern Internet, according to technology publication Ars Technica. They built the first affordable Internet protocol service, called the Computer Science Research Network, which help connect dozens of other computer science labs to the Internet over the intervening years.

If Wisconsin Republicans are successful and the school is forced to buy metered bandwidth from BadgerNet, it would also lose access to an ongoing project called Internet2, Ars notes. Internet2 is a non-profit that was awarded a $62 million federal stimulus grant to create a network capable of providing 8.8 terabytes of bandwidth to community institutions like libraries, schools and hospitals. It aims to connect research institutions like the University of Wisconsin to others around the nation on an ultra-fast network to facilitate the sharing of complex data.

Internet2's CEO, H. David Lambert, wrote to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) last Friday (PDF), beseeching him to abandon the measure.

"Forcing governmental entities to pay more for their services (while potentially receiving lower quality), is counterintuitive in this age of tremendous budget issues and emphasis on quality of education," he wrote. "The legislature should be looking for further ways to expand options in the marketplace for schools and libraries – not for ways to restrict such options."

Image: The University of Wisconsin at Madison. Credit: Flickr commons.