US: Municipal Wi-Fi: The Internet's Next Step?

One of the most interesting fronts in the battle for "net neutrality" has been the burgeoning interest in municipal wireless networks or "municipal Wi-Fi."

The concept of publicly-run, citywide, wireless Internet services is attractive to users tired of paying tithes to Comcast or Verizon and it presents a compelling alternative to the typical "consumer choice" of cable or broadband for one's access to the Web.

In discussing Google's rollout of a Wi-Fi service in its hometown of Mountain View, CA, company executive Chris Sacca said that "there wouldn't be a Net neutrality debate in this country if we really had a competitive environment for access."

"The Internet is not pervasive as it could be, or democratic," Sacca said.

As rosy as the idea of free or low-cost wireless Internet is, the reality is not quite within reach just yet. Google itself nixed plans for funding the development of municipal Wi-Fi networks beyond Mountain View, saying only that it wished to be a "catalyst" to spur initatives in other cities.

Many cities are building their own Wi-Fi networks already, with varying degrees of success and in the face of stiff opposition from telecom companies, who claim that publicly-run wireless Internet networks would stifle competition and innovation.
The Philadelphia Story

Philadelphia is the biggest Wi-Fi success story so far, thanks to a partnership with Earthlink, which also provides help for Google's service.

The Philadelphia deal calls for 135 square miles of service, at cost of $10 a month for low-income users, and $20 a month for small business owners and other users.

Dianah Neff, the former chief information officer for Philadelphia's government and architect of the ambitious Wi-Fi plan, recently announced her resignation to work for a global consulting firm that plans to advise cities worldwide on how to build wireless networks.

New Orleans set up a free Wi-Fi network to provide emergency communications and services after Hurricane Katrina. The service initially provided data streams of up to 512 kilobytes per second (kbps), but the city was forced to slow the service down after complaints from BellSouth that it was cutting into their business.

Earthlink struck again, however, and inked a deal with the Big Easy to provide wireless Internet access as of September 1st. The new network is scheduled to provide coverage for a 15-mile radius around the city, and offers both a 300kbps free service, and eventually a much faster service for $20 a month.

All of the networks use gear from a company called Tropos, which recently announced plans to introduce next-generation wireless equipment that will enable a boost in capacity, thus providing faster connections for users or enabling more users to make use of a network.

Earthlink has been moving aggressively into the wireless arena, after a Supreme Court decision affirmed the FCC's case that major telecom companies such as Verizon and AT&T did not have to share their networks with competitors.

The U.S. District Circuit Court of Appeals recently reaffirmed the decision of FCC vs. Brand X, which was seen as the galvanizing move of telecom companies to start deploying pricier broadband services, in order to compete with cable.

The rollout of new broadband services such as Verizon's FiOS and AT&T's Homezone has become the front line for the war over net neutrality, as the telecom companies want to charge different prices to content providers who want "preferred" service, a move bitterly opposed by content and technology giants and by consumer groups who say it is discriminatory and not in keeping with the initial design of the Internet.

Facing crippling losses of revenue from not being able to offer its traditional Internet services over competitors' lines, Earthlink is pushing Wi-Fi not only as a legitimate alternative to the typical "cable vs. broadband" dilemma, but also to save its business.

Both versions of the massive new telecommunications bill facing Congress have provisions that enable municipalities to build their own Internet networks, but the battle over net neutrality has stalled passage of the bill in the Senate. The Senate bill needs to be reconciled with the House version before passage.

Municipal Wi-Fi has the potential to be a viable alternative for people sick of the same choices when it comes to Internet access, but the enterprise has a long way to go, and with powerful corporate interests opposing it and a Congress generously described as disinterested, the road ahead is rough indeed.

AMP Section Name:Technology & Telecommunications
  • 208 Regulation

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