If not for politics and broadband, Ben Gould and Ron Sege might not have much in common. As chief marketing officer for DynamicCity, Gould sells fiber to the premises, or FTTP, solutions. As CEO of Tropos Networks, Sege delivers metro-scale broadband solutions wirelessly over mesh networks.
In some ways these are competing technologies. In other ways, they are perfectly compatible. Sooner or later, even wireless technologies have to link to a broadband backbone. But at the moment, their chief point of unison is the fight for municipalities rights to self-determination.
Both men and their companies oppose legislation, floating about a growing number of states, that rob municipalities and local voters of the right to determine whether their municipal governments should provide broadband services. Instead of leaving the question up to localities and their voters, the bills deliver monopolistic control of the question to “incumbent carriers” (as they are identified in the bills). That would be the dominant carrier in your neck of the woods.
Ironically, most do so in the name of competition, but the experiences of Tropos Networks, DynamicCity and their clients testify to the array of local solutions—and the technologies that support them—that the anti-muni bills would wipe out.
Tropos Networks sells metro-scale mesh routers to cities that want to use broadband wireless to automate mobile remote and location-based city services. The centerpiece of DynamicCitys work is an open service provider network, called Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency, or UTOPIA, that is bringing broadband to homes in a 14-community political subdivision in Utah. UTOPIA provides the backbone. An array of private companies use it to provide service.
DynamicCitys business model is focused on bringing the pipe into homes. Tropos Networks provides mesh wireless networks designed to accommodate an array of municipal communications. Residential access to the Internet is an attractive extra but rarely the driver that brings clients to their door.
Tropos Networks is now working with Philadelphia, the city that has put muni-wireless in the public spotlight. But few of Tropos other clients are attempting anything on the scale of what Philadelphia has in mind.
Until recently, said Sege, the focus for wireless mesh networks has been on public safety and municipal efficiency. Tropos clients such as North Miami Beach, Fla.; Frisco, Texas; and San Mateo and Milpitas, Calif., put mesh networks to work to communicate Amber Alerts and allow police and public safety officers to access crime databases. “Up until metro-scale Wi-Fi came along they had to be sitting at their desk to access that stuff,” he explained.
Once the meshes were in place, he said, “clients began asking if they couldnt connect other things. Generally theres so much bandwidth the police cant consume it all. Youd be silly not to use it for other things if its sitting there half idle.”
: Extending economy and efficiency with mesh networks”>
Some of those “other things” include using the mesh to wirelessly read residential utility meters in Corpus Christi, Texas (another state with an anti-muni bill pending). Not only has the municipal mesh made the city utility more efficient, it addresses the public worries that result from meter readers entering private homes. New Orleans installed 100 security cameras in high crime areas around the city to keep an eye on activity. That makes sense; officers cant be everywhere all the time but a mesh-cam system can.
Munis that hes worked with, says Sege, tend to follow one of the following models:
- Munis using the mesh strictly as a private network for police, fire, emergency and other city services. This model is currently in use in Framingham, Mass.; Milpitas and San Mateo, Calif.; and Franklin, Tenn.
- Munis acting as an ISP for their residents, a model followed in Chaska, Minn.
- Munis owning the network for use with city services but selling excess capacity to ISPs, which, in turn, offer services to residents.
- Munis engaging in a cable TV franchise-style model, making rights of way available to a private operator in exchange for some sort of consideration. Madison, Wis., and Tucson and Tempe, Ariz., currently use this model.
Legislation being considered in Colorado (curiously just next door to DyanamicCitys UTOPIA project—perhaps Colorado legislators should pay their neighbors a visit before voting) scotches the dream that any of these models or anything like UTOPIA could connect Colorados communities.
Declaring that “there is a need for statewide uniformity in the regulation of all public and private entities that provide cable television service, telecommunications service and advanced service,”Colorados Senate Bill 05-152 forbids local governments from providing such service, which includes broadband of any kind—wireless or wired, to even one subscriber.
Read that again if you missed it the first time. Not even one. Not if the municipality wants to engage a private provider in a partnership or joint venture. Not if the municipality wants to subcontract the whole darned operation. Not if the municipality wants to franchise the operation in the way most cable TV franchises presently operate.
Obviously, companies like Tropos Networks and DynamicCity have good reason to denounce such legislation. It robs them of the ability to do business with municipalities and, instead, forces them to negotiate with competing providers (with their own aging infrastructures to protect) if they hope to do business there at all.
Understandably, theyre not happy. The anti-muni bills present a scenario where their companies arent submitting bids to win the business. Theyre forced into negotiations with a competitor, the incumbent carrier, which understandably will want to protect the market and keep its competition out.
“One could argue that if these laws were in place at the dawn of cable TV, there wouldnt be cable TV right now,” said Sege. Certainly, in Colorado they could. Not only does the bill disenfranchise the municipality from entering into any sort of negotiation with providers, it disenfranchises local voters from participating in any local initiative in authorizing city fathers to develop any kind of communications services in their communities.
Colorados bill may be the most egregious in stealing local control from municipalities. It makes services of any sort verboten. But legislation pending in other states, even when it offers municipalities some wiggle room to negotiate their fates with big broadband companies, likewise removes the decision from local voters and their municipalities and grants incumbent carriers monopolistic control of the cities broadband future.
Gould believes anti-competitive practices in the United States—and he counts state anti-municipal legislation among them—as the reason why Americans pay comparatively more for Internet access than citizens of other developed nations. He cites a recent report from the International Telecommunications Union that shows the United States in 2004 ranked 13th in broadband penetration, falling from fourth in 2001.
“We believe the reason were underserved and overcharged is because there hasnt been fair competition,” said Gould.
To his mind the original Ma Bell—which was subsidized by the government and given rights of way, capital, guaranteed rates of return and captive rate payers—was never fully decontrolled, and recent mergers that have reduced the number of competing telecoms to six raise the specter that it never will be.
“On a local level you went from the original Ma Bell to multiple Ma Bells,” he said. Long-distance rates went down as a result of decontrol but “at the local level it didnt happen. You still had the original Bell footprint.”
The Telecom Act of 1996, which opened local carriers networks to allow other ISPs to run on them, “hasnt delivered the desired result” of fostering lively competition. “The motivation of the municipality is to be able to bring quality of life into a community,” said Gould.