Municipal Internet projects pose a threat to industry fiefdoms because they offer citizens a relatively cheap alternative to commercial ISP's costly and incomplete services. Moreover, they're easy to implement and administer and, as a result, growing more popular with local politicians and citizens. Viewed in light of day, the industry's recent putsch to quash local access is an undemocratic effort to stifle innovation and consumer choice.
Still, homegrown efforts to link up citizens may be on the losing side of this important battle.
As reported earlier in this space, major telecoms -- eager to dominate the multi-billion-dollar ISP market -- have begun to stake out territory wherever municipal broadband had begun to take root. They seek to frame community wireless projects as "costly mistakes" that are an afront to the American ideal of free enterprise.
Don't believe a word of it.
"Access to the Internet today is as much a necessity of life as the more traditional services and should be available to all," writes Jonathan Baltuch, an economic development consultant from St. Cloud, Florida, a city that provides its citizens with a wireless network covering 30 square miles. Baltuch emailed MediaCitizen to explain how St Cloud's network has proven everything but a "costly mistake":
Here is an interesting St. Cloud economic stimulus factoid: Average St Cloud residential annual Internet access cost -- $450, Average St Cloud residential annual property tax bill (city portion only) -- $300. By the city providing this one service to its residents the average household savings will be 50% more than the average tax bill for all city services. Further the $3 - $4 million per year that is leaving the city to flow to corporate headquarters all over the country will stay in the local economy.Verizon, in particular, has been aggressive in snubbing such civic WiFi efforts wherever they emerge. But the company is not alone. Other large commercial telecom services such as Comcast, Qwest 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 are against citizens' best economic interests, and that telcos should be granted the first right to refuse municipal WiFi projects that overlap where their commercial services are available.
The industry is working with pliant legislators in statehouses from Pennsylvania to Nebraska, Iowa and Indiana and elsewhere to draft opaque legislation that quashes municipal efforts to provide local neighborhoods and businesses with access.
The Cato Institute is expected soon to release its own report attacking municipal wireless. Cato, receives money from Verizon Communications, Time Warner, Inc, SBC Communications, Comcast Corporation and Freedom Communications -- all companies seeking to put a stake through the heart of homegrown broadband systems.
“There is, however, much less consensus about these sorts of government projects today than there was during the heyday of federal support for high-technology research back in the 1970s and 1980s,” writes Lee Gomes in Monday's Wall Street Journal. Gomes repeats the charge that both big phone companies -- which have lobbied in state legislatures to outlaw these networks -- and conservative Washington think tanks -- which tend to oppose activist-government initiatives -- are joining forces.
As a result of this two-pronged campaign to stamp out local innovation and widen the moat around the industry's existing services, America has fallen to the back of the pack of developed nations in providing broadband to their citizens. If industry gains a controlling hand in this battle, we will continue to lag behind more consumer friendly nations in Asia and Western Europe in offering access to the full array of online options.
MediaCitizens need to mobilize now in support of community Internet. You can learn more by visiting our coalition partners at Free Press, Consumers Union and MuniWireless.com, linking up with others who are building municipal wireless networks in your neighborhood and helping build a media of, by and for the people.
Or check out a community wireless network in action. Sascha Meinrath helped build the Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network (CUWiN) using the same "WiFi" equipment available off-the-shelf for homes and offices, but he and his colleagues put it on rooftops to connect neighbors over several square miles.