MADISON – Imagine a multi-media service that enters your home through an existing telephone line to perform these techno-tricks:

  • Provide digital television programming for hundreds of channels, including many high-definition channels.
  • Provide digital subscriber line, or DSL, high-speed Internet service.
  • Allow you to use a computer outside your home, or a wireless phone, to schedule the system to record television program.
  • Give you the ability to record up to four programs at once.
  • Let you store up to 200 photos on the system using Flickr, a popular online photo management program.
  • My personal favorite:  Allow more than one television to run the same recorded program at the same time, with viewers controlling each TV separately. In short, Dad can punch “pause” long enough to grab some potato chips and a beer and Mom can keep watching in another room.

Oh, yes, you can still answer your old-fashioned “land line” phone, too.

That futuristic-sounding service now exists in parts of southern Wisconsin, where AT&T launched “U-Verse” Oct. 27 as a competitor to cable television in much of Madison, Janesville and Beloit. The company reports 781,000 subscribers are getting U-Verse in 15 states after a two-year rollout that began in Texas. Already, U-Verse is available in much of the Milwaukee area, Green Bay and parts of the Fox Valley.

It’s hard to tell how many people in Wisconsin will switch to AT&T’s U-Verse over time. Some people don’t want or need that much technology. Others may worry the price will creep up over time, even though it’s now pretty competitive with cable. But at least they have the choice.

That’s because the Legislature and Gov. Jim Doyle worked together last year to allow AT&T and other telecom companies to enter the subscription television market, improve Internet services and provide computer-linked telephone service. That essentially set up competition between AT&T and cable companies, the largest of which in Wisconsin are Time Warner Cable and Charter.

The cable companies (largely unregulated by the state) have been nibbling away at the phone companies’ business for years, so most lawmakers thought it only fair that the phone companies got a crack at breaking into cable markets. That’s pretty much what federal regulators envisioned when they rewrote telecommunications law about 10 years ago.

Competition breeds innovation, especially in the Internet age. But spreading the benefits of competition across all of Wisconsin – not just the largest cities – isn’t necessarily easy.

As the governor and the Legislature consider next steps, they should look at strategies to enhance broadband penetration. Broadband access allows small businesses, which account for 60 percent of new jobs in Wisconsin, to expand to national and even international markets. It creates more opportunities for creation of businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. It enables hospitals and clinics to better utilize telemedicine applications. And it provides rural Wisconsin residents with greater access to higher education through distance learning systems.

Improved cell phone coverage is also important: A poor cell phone signal is at least an annoyance and often a deal-killer for most business location specialists. Why are so many parts of Wisconsin places where cell phone calls go to die?

Policymakers can also support the efforts of the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin to explore the level of regulation of telecommunication providers in Wisconsin. The PSC began work on this idea nearly a year ago, with an eye toward deregulating as a means for speeding technologies to market, providing more consumer choice, facilitating service in rural and other under-served areas, and instilling more competition. While the markets are not perfect, they are far preferable to pre-emptive regulation that is often out of date from its effective date.

For better and sometimes worse, the Internet has been the most disruptive technology of our time. It is changing communications daily. Adopting policies that open the door to innovation, such as U-Verse and whatever may come next, is best for Wisconsin and its economy.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.