Cities Should Control Their Wi-Fi Fates

By Carol Ellison  |  Posted 2004-12-28 Print this article Print

Opinion: Pennsylvania has given Big Broadband too much control over municipal wireless installations. Other states should not repeat the error.

The holidays, it seems, cant pass without a Scrooge story. This years comes from the state of Pennsylvania where early this month Gov. Edward Rendell inked legislation that effectively left the future development of municipal wireless broadband services in that state in the hands of Big Broadband.
The bill lets incumbent carriers (in Pennsylvania, that would be Verizon) determine whether Pennsylvania cities can create— and charge for— municipal wireless access services. The new law came hot on the heels of Philadelphias announcement that it planned to do just that. Now, its up to Verizon to exercise thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Philadelphias wireless ambitions. The company claims it wont scotch the citys plan. But what happens when Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton or Harrisburg decide to unwire?
Click here for more about Pennsylvanias municipal Wi-Fi act. Verizon President and CEO James ORourke declared Rendells signature on the bill "the right call for Pennsylvanians." Advocates of municipal wireless services disagree. In a recent edition of his Wi-Fi Networking News, Editor Glenn Fleishman opined: "Its strange how businesses that hate regulation in theory love how it supports their business models. Also strange how many folks who claim to want real markets only really want big businesses to be able to dictate to their markets what things cost." Its not just strange. Its discouraging—for two big reasons. First, its a giant step backwards. Municipal access was becoming quite the trend—much to the delight of most of us who would just like to power on and be connected. It sat on the horizon like some sort of nirvana. A world where we neither had to struggle with high fees nor endure long waits on hold when we called our individual service providers. A world where, when doing business in a distant city, we wouldnt have to suffer the mind-numbing slowness of dial-up or be held hostage to exorbitant access charges in hotel rooms. (The New York Hilton charged columnist Guy Kewney $165 per night!) A world where those of us who didnt want to pay those charges wouldnt have to jump out of our pajamas and pack off in search of a hot-spot in the wee hours just to check our e-mail. Looking for a Wi-Fi hot-spot? Click here to use eWEEK.coms Hot-Spot Finder More and more, that world seemed at hand. Before the City of Brotherly Love decided to bless its residents with wireless broadband access, San Francisco got the idea, put it in place in its downtown area around Union Square, and now plans to expand it to other areas of the city. Smaller cities, as geographically diverse as San Jose, Calif., Chaska, Minn., St. Cloud, Fla., and Rio Rancho, N.M., have similar plans. Click here to read about Rio Ranchos plans. That brings us to the second discouraging item—the specious argument that putting the future of these plans into the hands of Big Broadband somehow embraces free market principles and the spirit of competition. Next page: What about those free market principles?

Carol Ellison is editor of's Mobile & Wireless Topic Center. She has authored whitepapers on wireless computing (two on network security–,Securing Wi-Fi Wireless Networks with Today's Technologies, Wi-Fi Protected Access: Strong, Standards-based Interoperable Security for Today's Wi-Fi Networks, and Wi-Fi Public Access: Enabling the future with public wireless networks.

Ms. Ellison served in senior and executive editorial positions for Ziff Davis Media and CMP Media. As an executive editor at Ziff Davis Media, she launched the networking track of The IT Insider Series, a newsletter/conference/Web site offering targeted to chief information officers and corporate directors of information technology. As senior editor at CMP Media's VARBusiness, she launched the Web site, VARBusiness University, an online professional resource center for value-added resellers of information technology.

Ms. Ellison has chaired numerous industry panels and has been quoted as a networking and educational technology expert in The New York Times, Newsday, The Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio's All Things Considered, CNN Headline News, WNBC and CNN/FN, as well as local and regional Comcast and Cablevision reports. Her articles have appeared in most major hi-tech publications and numerous newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor.

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