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City-Sponsored Wi-Fi's Wild Ride
Published on Sunday, August 21, 2005 by the Seattle Times
City-Sponsored Wi-Fi's Wild Ride
by Neal Peirce
 
One of the greediest moves ever by big telephone companies appears — for the moment — to have run amok, if not backfired.

Telecom giants, including Verizon and SBC Communications, have been pressing legislatures to stop cities from sponsoring their own high-speed wireless networks — no matter if the cities' goal is to improve efficiency of municipal services ("e-government") and deliver lower-cost broadband Internet services to citizens and businesses.

As soon as Philadelphia announced it wanted to build an audacious citywide Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) network, the Pennsylvania Legislature was lobbied heavily until it agreed to forbid any other city in the state from following suit.

It's unfair competition, the telecoms have argued, for local governments to use public funds to offer telecommunication services — even though the phone companies received (according to a Wall Street Journal report) $5 billion in federal subsidies last year.

The stakes, of course, are huge because it's likely that Internet, television signal and phone service will eventually all be available by a single broadband connection.

Bills blocking municipal Wi-Fi were introduced in 14 legislatures this year; in Colorado, Nebraska and Florida, they passed. But then cities began to counter-lobby. And some corporate heavies — Intel and Texas Instruments, makers of chips for modems and Wi-Fi routers; and Dell, which offers Wi-Fi in its new laptops — joined them.

In June, the cities' cause got a major boost when (in a deliciously ironic piece of federalist "pre-emption of pre-emption"), Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., introduced a bill invalidating any state laws that stop municipalities from offering direct broadband service.

Sympathizing with cities' complaints of tortuously slow or expensive broadband offerings by the telecoms, McCain said it was "appropriate and even commendable" for local citizens, acting through local government, to "improve their lives by investing in their own future."

In the meantime, reports Ron Sege, CEO of Tropos (a firm providing equipment for Wi-Fi networks), it's "a wild ride" as localities' demand for Wi-Fi soars — up to 250 cities served by his firm alone. Most, he reports, are aiming to offer citizens and businesses "all you can eat" broadband access for $20 or less a month, far below average telecom prices.

Proponents say broadband needs a major boost. The United States blithely assumes its technological superiority, but in fact ranks only 12th worldwide in broadband access per capita, according to a survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The intriguing issue just now surfacing is whether cities, once they've decided to take a lead on Wi-Fi, do best at contracting out the entire process of building and running their broadband networks to an experienced and willing private operator — an EarthLink or AOL, for example. Or, are they wiser to maintain maximum control, carefully determining how to run or contract out individual pieces of the operation?

Most cities are now going the general contractor route, either because the technology seems so complex, or to avoid any political embarrassments from some misstep.

Philadelphia, despite its "first bird off the wire" leadership in deciding for citywide Wi-Fi, has made that decision. It's looking for a "turnkey" operator that promises to fulfill an array of conditions, ranging from heavy business service to discounted prices for low-income users.

Examples abound of cities just beginning to think through the many ways to apply Wi-Fi. Corpus Christi, for example, is looking at such far-ranging uses as streaming video and mug-shot sharing in police vehicles, utility metering, and ways to improve student-teacher-parent communications.

Costis Toregas, president-emeritus of Public Technology Inc. and dean of the urban technology field, argues that cities are a key "cauldron of experimentation" in American public life — the level where disruptive new technologies, unusual public-private partnerships, can develop the most easily.

Toregas is agnostic on how much a city should contract out Wi-Fi-based technology and applications, how much it should do itself:

"In some regions," he suggests, "the city is making the first investment. In others the communications firm comes first with the city as anchor tenant. There is no magic right way to do it. But there is a magic of doing it."

© 2005 Seattle Times

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