Cities Should Control Their Wi-Fi Fates

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?

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick 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.

/zimages/7/28571.gifLooking 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.

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick 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?