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Data sharing gets a reprieve

Wisconsin legislators amend a budget that would have banned high speed data-sharing networks.

By | June 17, 2011

View of the capitol from the University of Wisconsin Madison campusJEFF MILLER/UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON

Data-intensive, collaborative research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is safe—at least for now. The Wisconsin legislature amended the state budget, which now allows the university to continue sharing data with other institutions over high speed networks such as Internet2.

The news comes as a relief to many University of Wisconsin researchers, who were shocked when the state's finance committee last week proposed a budget that would have forced the University of Wisconsin to withdraw from such networks, which power many collaborative projects.

“This action recognizes that reliable, high-capacity broadband connections are important to large research endeavors,” said Timothy Donohue, a bacteriologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who leads the Great Lakes Bioenergy Center, which relies on Internet2 to share terabytes of data on biofuel development with other institutions.

The amended budget, which  was approved in the wee hours of the morning on June 16, also allows the University of Wisconsin-Madison to keep its membership in the high-speed broadband cooperative called Wiscnet for another two years. Republican lawmakers had argued that the state funds subsidizing WiscNet gave it an unfair advantage against commercial broadband providers. Over the next two years, the legislature will audit the network to see whether it is competing fairly with traditional telecommunications providers.

“That will give us plenty of time to make the case that WiscNet is a valuable asset,” said Terry Millar, a mathematician and vice chancellor for research at the school. He estimates that at least $100 million in funding is contingent on available, high-speed internet access.

High speed data-sharing networks aren’t completely free and clear, however. The new law allows existing connections like Internet2 to continue, but the school would need the legislature’s okay before joining any new ones, said University of Wisconsin-Madison lobbyist Don Nelson.

Newer, faster connections will probably become available in the coming years, so if the legislature doesn’t allow the university to join them, the school could lose its competitive edge in research, Millar said. While the long-term future of high-speed data sharing is uncertain, the new law at least preserves the status quo.

“It could have been much, much worse,” Millar said.

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