TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Who Wants to Stop You From Getting Inexpensive Local Internet

Who Wants to Stop You From Getting Inexpensive Local Internet

Steven Levy (
Tue, 26 Jul 2005 14:21:09 -0500

By Steven Levy, Newsweek writer

July 18 issue -- Pete Sessions, a Texas member of the House, believes
in states' rights. But he also thinks that there are situations so
extreme that Congress must slap down state and local government
initiatives. One such case: localities that offer citizens free or
low-cost Internet service. Idealists may view extending high-speed
Internet as a boon to education, an economic shot in the arm and a
vital component in effective emergency services. Sessions (_who once
worked for telecom giant SBC_) sees it as local-government meddling in
the marketplace -- "trying to pick winners and losers," he says -- and
thus justifies federal meddling to stop elected officials from giving
their constituents a stake in the 21st century.

The Sessions bill is only one shot in the battle over municipal
wireless, or muni Wi-Fi. In hundreds of communities, public officials
have concluded that the Internet is an essential service. They see
that their residents are either offered prices that are too high or
are not offered services at all. They are aware that while our nation
stumbles in high-speed-Internet adoption, other countries make sure
consumers can get connected at lower prices (Japanese and South Korean
users pay about half what we do). "We are asleep at the wheel," says
Andrew Rasiej, a candidate for public advocate in New York City.

Using "mesh" networks that run on the Wi-Fi wireless standard, cities
can deliver the Internet affordably to everyone within their
boundaries. "We can cover a city for a fraction of the cost of the
traditional providers," says Ron Sege of Tropos, a company that
installs shoe-box-size devices that beam the Net from street
lamps. This enables cities like Philadelphia to launch nonprofit
efforts to make whole neighborhoods into hotspots: public spaces get
free access, and citizens who use the service at home or around town
are billed less than $20 a month. "We all have to compete in a
knowledge economy," explains Dianah Neff, the city's chief information
officer, who says the current providers focus excessively on the

The telecom and cable giants that sell broadband Internet have
mobilized to stop or-ganizers like Neff. The likes of Verizon, SBC and
Comcast are lobbying hard and donating big. They argue that
taxpayer-funded competition makes the marketplace unfair (ironic,
since those firms owe their dominance to government-granted
monopolies). Then they claim that cities are too unsophisticated to
pull off such projects (so why are they worried?). They fund think
tanks that churn out white papers with titles like "Municipal
Networks: The Wrong Solution." And they are racking up successes -- 14
states so far have passed laws that constrain localities in muni Wi-Fi
efforts. In Pennsylvania, only a grass-roots protest from
Philadelphians forced the legislature to exempt the city from its
bill-but elsewhere in the state, cities and towns can't proceed on
plans unless they offer the deal first to SBC and phone companies,
which can stall for years before deciding.

The fight isn't over. As people learn what's at stake, they are less
likely to tolerate efforts that make it illegal for local officials to
serve them. Tech companies like Dell are beginning to exert lobbying
pressure on the other side. And Sens. John McCain and Frank Lautenberg
responded to the Sessions bill by introducing the Community Broadband
Act, which stops states from banning muni Wi-Fi. Those yearning for
affordable broadband-or any at all-should let their representatives
know which bill they prefer. And if you live in Colorado, Florida,
Pennsylvania or any other state where legislators have roadblocked
cheap wireless, you might check out whether your local rep supported
the telcos -- or you the citizen.

Copyright 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
Copyright 2005


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[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: SBC's attitude seems to be that small
towns like ours 'do not need to offer services like that since we
(SBC) already offer DSL and all you need to do is subscribe to our
phone service (which if you were not an idiot you would do already)
and you will get DSL (in connection with your SBC phone service.) What
a deal, eh ? PAT]

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