A wireless turf battle is brewing over community internet, as initiatives by municipalities (from New York to Austin, Seattle and Philadelphia) to provide citizens with affordable over-the-air broadband access are drawing heavy fire from a powerful telecom lobby seeking to eliminate competition in the lucrative market for providers.
Many cities are moving forward on plans to implement home-grown municipal wireless networks -- even funding them through successful bond measures. In some cases they're proving a popular ballot initiative, as citizens vote in favor of inexpensive or free access. Moreover, the networks are proving a win-win for city politicians: they're relatively cheap to build and local officials gain points from bringing technology -- and resulting economic opportunity -- to neighborhoods that are often passed over by commercial providers.
Municipal wireless networks were thought to benefit everybody. That was until major telecoms -- eager to dominate the multi-billion-dollar wireless providers market -- began to stake out territory wherever municipal broadband had begun to take root. Verizon, in particular, has been agressive in snubbing civic WiFi efforts wherever they emerge. But the company is not alone. Other large commercial telecom services such as Comcast and SBC -- whose tentacles reach well into the pockets of legislators in all 50 states -- are arguing that municipalities have no business serving as ISP's, that such initiatives present unfair competition to the private sector, and that telcos should be granted the first right to refuse municipal WiFi projects that overlap areas where their commercial services are available.
For the moment, the telecom industry is gaining the upper hand, working with pliant legislators in statehouses from Pennsylvania to Nebraska, and Indiana to draft opaque legislation that quashes municipal efforts to provide underserved neighborhoods and businesses with access. Anti-muni legislation is already on the books in 15 states with more in the works. But, argues Dave Mock, “legislation is only a temporary reprieve from technological advancement -- eventually, the economic and performance advantages of any technology will force down erected barriers.” Regardles, a powerful telecom lobby will continue to forestall this process using considerable resources to lobby state by state against wired municipalities.
Opposing forces are emerging from other corners of the private sector as wireless hardware and software providers such as Intel, IBM and Tropos seek to gain advantage in a future of ubiquitous and affordable wireless access. The financial benefits are plenty. Government spending worldwide on wireless solutions will grow at a compound annual rate of 42 percent from $5.1 billion in 2005 to $6.9 billion in 2006, Riz Khaliq of IBM Corp told Washington Technology. The growth will provide opportunities for a wide range of technology companies from systems integrators and network providers to wireless device manufacturers and geographic information systems providers, he said.
These pro-muni members of the private sector will soon be joined by a coalition of public advocacy and media rights organizations (of which MediaChannel.org is a member) working in concert to mobilize grassroots and policy support for bottom-up efforts to build affordable broadband networks. Many of these groups argue that Internet access should be treated like a public utility and not fall under the sole authority of a large-scale commercial provider.
The stage is set for several players to engage in fierce debate and action over our wireless destiny. While the general public tends to come to these types of issues late – turned off, perhaps, by the technical verbiage of wireless developers and the wonkish legislating of their elected officials -- this is an issue that strikes at the core of the movement to return control of the media to citizens like you and me. Too much is at stake to remain silent.