Monday, January 17, 2005

Battle Lines 2005: Community Internet

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 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.


Anonymous said...

I live in Malibu (an upscale community by some standards) and we can't get DSL! Verizon is the local telco and they seem disinclined to supply any service. I don't know if the City of Malibu has any plans for municipal WiFi, but Verizon protests in view of their lack of interest in providing an alternative is not very compelling. I even contacted Southern Cal Edison to see if they might be interested in BPL to our area, but to no avail.

Anonymous said...

So what can those of us who want to see the munis win do? How can we get involved even if our own municipality isn't working in this direction?

Anonymous said...

I hate to sound like a mindless follower, but let's face it - I'm a follower. I'd be glad to send a comment in support of community WiFi, but I don't know who or where. And, having just sent several letters opposing Condoleezza Rice's confirmation, I'm not about to embark on yet more research to find out how to protest the takeover by the big comm companies.

Can you provide us with some prime targets and a few salient talking points?


Anonymous said...

I live in Chicago, and you have no choice but to go through Comcast to get trully High Speed. DSL is a joke nad SBC is starting to provide and alternative. Anyway, I pay 40 dollars a month for something that has become absolutely necessary to function in society. I welcome open competition and government involvement with this.

Jonathan Baltuch said...

What a wonderfully written article. Your points are dead on. As the developers of the Cyber Spot in St. Cloud, Florida we are also fighting the battle at the state level as Florida seeks to pass the ALEC model legislation developed by the Telcos.

In St. Cloud we are expanding our current test system citywide to bring free high-speed internet to every citizen as well as dramatically enhance public safety.

I did want to emphasize one point which I think gets missed sometimes. Municipal Wireless systems are not just for communities that are underserved. I think that argument that gets used quite often diminishes the focus on the fact that ubiquitous wireless systems are not the same as broadband to the home.

As an example I would point to Korea which has close to 95% penetration of cheap high-speed internet to homes and businesses. Even so they are spending billions to make the entire country wireless at 1mps. They recognize that the ubiquitous nature of high speed wireless creates opportunities that are not possible with fixed base service.

In St. Cloud 72% of our residents have internet at home 47% of those broadband. We have a number of different providers offering high-speed (although at about $50 per month). It is about more than being able to connect, it is about how you do it and at what cost along with closing the digital divide.

The City feels very strongly that this is a public service in the same vain as Police, Fire, Parks etc. It affords their citizens economic opportunity and lifestyle enhancement. Access to the internet today is as much a necessity of life as the more traditional services and should be available to all.

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 ovet the country will stay in the local economy.

Finally, the real opportunity for private industry exists not in the delivery of service (dominated by a small handful of companies)but in the development of applications (by hundereds of companies) and uses for the infrastructure.

Keep up the good work.


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