Municipalities Become Broadband Battleground

You could see this one coming years away. Wi-Fi began its steady proliferation. Equipment costs plummeted while larger and larger hot spots began popping up in airports, coffee shops and campuses. It was only a matter of time before the notion of scaling up to a citywide service built credibility.

Now, municipalities across the United States, from Philadelphia and San Francisco to LaFayette, La., have begun announcing plans for low-cost or free Wi-Fi networks. Some proponents are touting economic boosts while others see a powerful tool to address the digital divide that shackles poverty-stricken areas.

Meanwhile, cable and DSL providers are using size and legislative clout to fight the competitive public network threat. These companies aren't just getting bigger--Verizon is completing its $6.7 billion link-up with MCI while SBC gobbles up AT&T for $16 billion--they're also uniting in powerful lobbying efforts that steamroll local grassroots campaigns for low-cost or free service.

The controversy pits the principle of egalitarian information access against the mantras of free enterprise. Its resolution could define our nation's socioeconomic structure for decades to come.

There are now 14 states where municipal networks have been banned or curbed, to the delight of local phone and cable providers, whose PR operatives are touting "safeguards" (an Orwellian term if there ever was one) that include preventing cities from using taxpayer money to fund networks, requiring a public vote before construction (a great opportunity to bias the vote with an expensive ad campaign), and forcing equal tax burdens on city-owned networks.

Even without the lobbying, the legal field has tilted in favor of the private interests. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states have the right to pass laws restricting or prohibiting cities and towns from building telecommunications networks that compete with private firms.

Now the legal struggle has climaxed with two competing bills in Congress. The Community Broadband Act of 2005, proposed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), would guarantee municipalities the right to build telecommunication networks. Opposing it is a bill by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) prohibiting cities from operating communications networks that compete against private companies.

That Sessions is a former SBC executive, and that the cable and telcos are pouring millions into lobbying efforts at the federal, state and community levels, simply stinks.

If we put aside misguided utopianism as well as revulsion towards corporate lobbying, the arguments on both sides warrant serious consideration. Because metropolitan Wi-Fi networks are in their infancy, questions dominate this debate.

Interference is the primary concern raised by technology experts. Municipal Wi-Fi relies on unregulated 2.4 MHz spectrum typically used by a range of other devices, from portable phones to microwaves, as well as Wi-Fi networks run by homes, businesses and universities. Interference can severely degrade performance by causing dropped packets, which increases error rates and puts greater strain on routers.

Whether Philadelphia, the first major public network to launch, can overcome interference and other technological issues, including network security, remains to be seen.


At $20 to $25 per home passed, Wi-Fi rollouts seem reasonably priced. Philadelphia, with just over a half-million households, figures its total project cost at $10 million to 15 million. Compared to hundreds of millions to build a publicly funded ballpark with dubious economic and social benefits, this seems like a great deal.

But critics point out that launching a network is the easy part. Operating it effectively, protecting it from security threats, bandwidth hogs and interference handicaps, will cost money and require expertise municipalities simply don't have.

The digital divide is very real. Philadelphia city officials point out that 75 to 85 percent of their minority and low-income areas don't subscribe to broadband, and the vast majority of those polled cite cost as the primary reason.

These officials estimate that the $10 million spent on the project could generate up to $2 million in savings on telecommunications bills, which could be tabbed for other social programs.

But legal and economic experts debate whether a more effective way to reach disadvantaged city residents would be to rely on "consumer demand pull" by handing out vouchers that could be spent on broadband.

Other cities, such as Lafayette, La., in which voters recently pushed forward with a network, cite the need to reinforce an information infrastructure to stimulate jobs. Backers also say city services themselves will become more efficient as they take advantage of broadband connections.


This rekindled public-versus-private debate has festered throughout our nation's history.

Is the movement of information along broadband paths the 21st century equivalent of 19th century canal, postal and railroad infrastructures or 20th century interstate highways, dams and airports?

Private enterprise built railroads, only to see them taken over by the federal government. The post office went through a tug-of-war in the early 19th century until it became the first major federal bureaucracy, which was run so efficiently it was the envy of the globe. Now it's facing steep competition from overnight delivery services.

Which leads to the final question:


What's lacking in most of the ongoing scenarios is cooperation between public and private sectors. While this may appear to be insurmountable--critics say there's just too much incentive for cities to legislatively favor their network over private competitors--there are some proposals by which cities will invest in the infrastructure and companies will run the network at a reasonable profit.

My sense is that in a fair democracy, the vast majority of U.S. citizens would favor allowing municipalities to chart their own broadband course, private enterprise be damned. Cable and telephone companies spent decades with veritable monopolies generating ill will.

If we lived in a fair democracy, this would surely come home to roost. But I'm not sure we do or it will.

You can reach Will at