Muni-Wireless: The Battle Continues

Opinion: Intel's interest in the debate over municipal wireless is a welcome twist in an issue so bogged down in free-market rhetoric it's forgotten about the market.

If you thought the debate over municipal broadband and its attendant Wi-Fi services ended with the passage of House Bill 30 in Pennsylvania late last year, think again. Not only does it rage on, but new players are entering the fray even as Philadelphias wireless rollout, the highest-profile project in the fracas, is moving toward completion.

Variations of the law passed in Pennsylvania are rearing their ugly heads before other state legislatures, a trend lamented by advocates of municipal wireless who find bills in Indiana and Ohio even more threatening to municipal services than the one in Pennsylvania.

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Ohios House Bill 591 says municipalities shall not "subsidize in any manner the operations of a public cable service provider or public telecommunications service provider with public money of the political subdivision." Muni programs would not only be prohibited, says muni-advocate Esme Vos, "but any public-private partnership will be illegal also."

Indianas House Bill No. 1148 presents visions of endless red-tape or no muni-broadband at all. It would prohibit municipalities, or for that matter, any "political subdivision" not only from constructing and operating a municipal service but also from controlling one (which, in a not-so-broad interpretation, also means it could not contract with a private operator to provide service) unless it first "determines, after conducting an inquiry under section 6 of this chapter, that there is not a person that:

  • provides the desired services at the time of the political subdivisions inquiry under section 6 of this chapter; or
  • intends to provide the desired services not later than nine (9) months after the date of the political subdivisions inquiry under section 6 of this chapter; in the designated area."

Curiously, the project that appeared most threatened by Pennsylvanias HB30—Philadelphias plan to offer city residents and business low-cost broadband, while providing free wireless in its parks and public places—is forging merrily ahead, thanks to an agreement that the city struck last year with Verizon. HB30 invested Verizon, as the regions incumbent carrier, with veto power over municipal broadband projects in the state.

Philadelphias project will be governed by a public-private partnership the likes of which, the citys chief public information officer says, "we havent seen before."

The city is asking private companies to submit proposals to establish and operate the network, expected to cost $10.5 million. That model may be new in the broadband world but its reminiscent of the kinds of contracts cities have had with cable TV providers for the last 30 years.

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