This week Im turning this space over to the many readers who raised their virtual voices to me in e-mail regarding the ongoing battle over municipal Wi-Fi.
Bills similar to one passed last year in Pennsylvania, which cloud the future of municipal wireless, are now pending in a number of states including Indiana, Ohio and Texas. Some weeks back, I asked you what you thought and quite a number of readers wrote to tell me.
Most of the mail ran strongly in favor of muni Wi-Fi and against legislation such as the new Pennsylvania law, which effectively gives incumbent carriers veto power over municipalities plans to implement it within their cities.
We heard from Esme Vos, who runs MuniWireless.com. Vos said she looks to muni Wi-Fi to “bring some competition in the market for broadband.” Vos, a U.S. citizen, lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where municipal broadband pipes are open to all competitors—at the governments insistence.
I did hear from a few who oppose municipal Wi-Fi, mostly on philosophical grounds. They just dont like governments operating any service of any kind. But one writer worried about the potential for interference on the airwaves if Wi-Fi blankets a city. And we also heard from former Delaware public advocate Evan Wilner, who wrote to express a great deal more confidence in the carriers ability to deliver broadband services than that of local governments, pointing out what a mess Philadelphia has made of other municipal projects.
While advocates of muni Wi-Fi elsewhere in the country were vocal in opposition to state legislation such as that in Pennsylvania, those in Pennsylvania wrote their laments over what to do now.
Lisa Zylstra, a public relations consultant, spoke up for muni Wi-Fi, saying “residents deserve the right to determine services and providers. The truth is, the traditional service providers would rather complain to the feds than make the necessary investment required to provide wireless and broadband access services everywhere. It kind of reminds me of my children screaming, Its not fair. I say lifes not fair; rather than complain, come up with a better idea.”
Kevin Sweeney, MIS manager of Mt. Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb with a nationally recognized school district and a reputation for cost-efficient public services (including a free community magazine), wrote to say the community was in the process of implementing wireless access, but “with Gov. Rendell pulling the rug out Im not sure what to do next. I was hoping to partner with a wireless supplier to provide access. They would handle all the aggravation and we would provide the sites for the towers. Our citizens would love to have this capability.”
Now he finds his community facing the same dilemmas that Frank Caruso faces in Kutztown—how to provide any kind of service when a state law pre-empts local government and puts the plan in the hands of a single private provider.
Fred Marsico, a Philadelphia native who is now systems administrator for Corvallis, Ore., wrote to commend his former city “for the courage displayed in offering free or low-cost wireless Internet access throughout the city. I condemn Fast Eddie Rendell for his signature on a bill that gives Big Broadband the role of controller and dictator to wireless access.”
Next page: Who pays for municipal wireless?
: Who pays for municipal wireless?”>
Marsico offered these thoughts on how to fund the service: “Taxation is probably the best method, although some may claim that the local citizens would then be subsidizing the tourists. How contraire! Tourism brings revenue to the city and helps keep local taxes down since the revenues from tourism bring businesses profits and enable those businesses, in turn, to pay the citys various Business use taxes and other mercantile licenses fees, etc. The outsourcing of technical support to local IT would then put more people to work locally, thereby generating more revenue for the city via wage taxes, license fees, etc.”
Mark Barton, of San Jose, Calif., would like to see municipal wireless come his way. He says his business could not exist without broadband and, based on his experience with municipal utilities, muni Wi-Fi promises to hold down rates. “In the neighboring towns of Santa Clara (Intels headquarters) and Palo Alto, the power utilities are run by the cities,” he wrote. “Residents in these towns enjoy significantly lower bills than those of us in the Pacific Gas & Electric service zones. … My experience is that local control can be very effective in providing essential services.”
Alexander J. Wood spoke up for muni Wi-Fi, saying “the most important service many consumers get is their broadband connection, and not their phone line or TV service…I can also see Wi-Fi becoming the only access in small towns where big providers wont spend money to run fiber-optic lines and new DSL and cable systems to distribute the bandwidth. Even if the wireless projects dont replace cable or DSL, they surely will bring the prices of private broadband way down…Now, if lawmakers could get with the program we might actually have better broadband.
Although mail ran strongly in favor of muni Wi-Fi, there were a few who did not agree that cities should have the right to determine their own Wi-Fi fates.
Pennsylvania resident Terry Smith, systems administrator at Management Science Associates likened muni wireless to socialism and argued “while it is a noble thought that all citizens of Philadelphia should be given free or low-cost broadband, what happens to free enterprise? If I can get broadband for $15, why spend $42? If Verizon (or Comcast or Adelphia or whoever) loses customers to this government-subsidized low-cost supplier, they will be forced to raise their rates. Eventually their rates will be so high that they will be out of the broadband business. If all carriers are forced out of their broadband business, the government will be the ONLY provider. And once they are the only provider and have to maintain their own infrastructure, the prices will soar, either in monthly fees or higher taxes… The way to affordable broadband is through competition. When companies compete, prices drop.”
Cmdr. J. Price of the U.S. Naval Reserve also opposes muni Wi-Fi but doesnt like the idea of the state granting a monopoly interest to any carrier. “I dont want any governmental agency taxing, controlling or providing anything,” Price wrote. “So no, the government should not grant control or a monopoly to any company, nor should it allow any company to control the market by some legal grant. Every vendor that desires to enter a market should be allowed to do so, and may the best win.”
Then there were others who didnt think muni Wi-Fi was enough. Jeff Hoel, a resident of Palo Alto, Calif., describes himself as an enthusiastic supporter of muni “fiber to the home,” which he calls “an even better idea than muni wireless.” He says hed “rather pay my muni than the telecom incumbents for Internet, phone, and TV services… Munis typically try to charge for utilities what they cost, plus a little for the General Fund. At least thats the policy for Palo Altos existing utilities. It could be the same for an information utility.”
Jeff Warner, of Hermosa Beach, Calif., said he likes the idea of muni Wi-Fi in theory but, on close examination, he has his doubts. He writes: “It would be nice to get wireless away from my house, but I would hardly ever use it. If the city wants to paint the area with connections, I think they should get a new frequency!”