Unwiring cities

The next phase of municipal networking might be upon us. Philadelphia is exploring whether to join a handful of other municipalities already offering Wi-Fi Internet connectivity to citizens and travelers. Any potential health issues aside, this trend bodes well for users, but I wonder if the trend suddenly will be stopped in the name of protecting consumers.

Late last month, Philadelphia Mayor John Street announced the appointment of an executive committee for "Wireless Philadelphia." This committee is supposed to work with Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff to come up with a business plan for providing city-wide Wi-Fi for free or at a very low cost to users. This would be great for people wandering around Philadelphia or sitting in a hotel or coffee shop, but it might present a bit of a challenge to commercial providers of wireless hot-spot service such as T-Mobile.

Philadelphia is not the first city to think of doing this. Cleveland, working with Case Western Reserve University, already has deployed more than 1,500 wireless access points downtown. This is only the first stage of the OneCleveland project, which eventually will "connect more than 1,500 institutions and organizations and every member of the community to the Internet," according to a description of the project (DocFinder: 3728). Information about many other similar projects, in the U.S. and elsewhere, can be found on the MuniWireless Web site. The projects vary in scale and cost to the user, but have one thing in common: They are government-sponsored in some way.

I've written about municipally sponsored networking in the past, and I think that such projects might play an important role in providing high-speed Internet connectivity in what I hope will be the future of the Internet and Internet service. It's very important that ISPs not restrict what applications their subscribers can run or what locations they can go to. This is important because it was this type of openness that brought us the explosive growth in Internet applications and uses over the past decade. But this same openness means that ISPs are providing commodity service and might find it hard to make much money. Under these conditions an ISP might be tempted to restrict users to services that the ISP provides and can charge extra for. This is where municipally sponsored networks can help; they do not need to make a profit so they can keep the pipe open.

Not everyone likes municipal networks, especially incumbent telephone and cable companies. They tend to think it's a bit unfair that municipal networks do not have to pay taxes but instead are sometimes subsidized by the taxes the incumbents pay.

Some states have sided with those who think it's unfair and have banned such networks. Last June the Supreme Court said that there was nothing in U.S. telecom law that prevented states from doing this.

Even though publicly owned infrastructure might be the best way to provide future Internet service, maybe with commercial ISPs using that infrastructure to offer their own service, I expect there will be a full-court press to get more states to prevent municipalities from doing what is best for their citizens. I also predict that the pressure will succeed in too many places.

Disclaimer: Sometimes being old can help. Limits on Massachusetts' authority over Harvard are written into the state constitution (see  Article V Section I). But the above lament of governmental power is my own opinion.

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