Verizon's victory in Pennsylvania will be short-lived

* Incumbents should innovate, not quibble

If the incumbent network operators would spend less time and energy fighting what everyone else is doing and more of it innovating, they would be better off and so would their customers.

The city of Philadelphia plans to begin deploying a citywide, mesh Wi-Fi network for relatively low monthly fees in June 2005 where no broadband services are yet available. Unsurprisingly, the state's largest incumbent carrier, Verizon, has fought to quash that effort.

Verizon claimed municipalities and other governments have unfair advantages such as being able to tap into public funds and not having to pay taxes. That may be true, but municipalities that feel competitively disadvantaged themselves because the incumbents aren't stepping up to the plate fast enough with necessary network services for schools and citizens should have the freedom to find alternatives.

Witness, for example, the City of Provo, Utah. When incumbents Qwest and Comcast weren't providing sufficient broadband services to ensure future prosperity of the area, the city got creative and built its own fiber infrastructure. Now, denizens have truly integrated, 10M bit/sec services to the home. Aside from getting traditional phone service, they can, for example, receive and forward voice and e-mail messages, attend college classes, and watch local graduations all from their TVs.

For now, apparently, Philadelphia and Verizon have come to terms to let the Wi-Fi project go ahead as planned, albeit with a one-year time limit for Philly to complete the rollout. But a new Pennsylvania law allows incumbent carriers to block such projects in the future and also leaves the remaining Pennsylvania municipalities at the mercy of having to partner with incumbents like Verizon.

"Victories" like these will be short-lived. Network services will hatch from any number of new sources in the months and years to come. Many will sprout from the bottom up, if the need is there and the incumbents aren't. Governments shouldn't have to be held hostage by old Bellhead timetables and business processes. They should be able to act in their own best interests, just as private companies do, and turn to other sources.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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