Taking Sides for the Municipal Wireless Showdown

Opinion: As senators and representatives stake out their ground, tech companies need to weigh in to offset the telecom industry's considerable influence.

Every big piece of legislation—omnibus bills like the 1996 Telecommunications Act—has a simmering issue that helps move it forward.

Its usually a consumer-friendly issue, something that politicians can point to as a demonstration of how theyre looking out for voters. Sometimes, its a business issue, something an industry really wants as part of a business growth strategy.

With the latest telecom reform efforts, it looks as though the simmering consumer issue is going to be free wireless access, particularly free wireless provided by city and other local governments.

Why? Because large phone and cable companies are not interested in seeing cities and town provide their customers with free wireless service; for them, its competition.

Cities and towns, however, see free wireless as a way to keep and attract businesses and residents, an increasing number of whom rely on the Internet to conduct their business and personal affairs.

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Two bills introduced in Congress this summer hint at how the debate will shape up. And a look at a fight that just ended in Texas provides some clues about how tech can win this one when it goes up against the phone guys.

The Community Broadband Act of 2005, is sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D- N.J.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ari.), former head of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. It would let cities, towns and counties build their own wireless networks.

A rival piece of legislation, the Preserving Innovation in Telecommunications Act of 2005," would ban that activity. It is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who is a former employee of SBC, the phone company that serves the nations Western and Southwestern states.

A look at the Sessions vs. McCain showdown provides the outlines for the political ins and outs of this fight. McCain, who is considering a bid for the presidency, has a great deal of power on Capitol Hill. He is the de facto leader of the Senates moderate Republicans, an increasingly powerful group. And hes gotten a moderate Democrat on board the legislation as a co-sponsor.

Sessions is a member of the House Rules Committee, the body that decides the circumstances under which the House considers and enacts legislation. Sessions doesnt have the same star power as McCain but his committee post gives him leverage over how any legislation moves through the House.

Its a safe bet that in that role, Sessions will represent the interests of the company for which he once worked and which, last year, was his third largest campaign contributor. Oh, and dont forget: House Majority Leader Tom Delay comes from Texas, too.

Whos going to win? Well, its a bit early to predict. And this time around—unlike in the passage of the 1996 Telecom Act—consumer interest in technical details is higher and connecting to the Internet is more important to more people than it was 10 years ago.

Widespread interest certainly helped Austin Wireless City—the free municipal service provided to Austin, Texas, residents—win its battle in the Texas legislature against SBC.

It wasnt an easy fight. "They have more lobbyists than we have representatives in the capitol, says Rich MacKinnon, president of Austin Wireless. Like a lot of other municipal providers, hes worried about what might happen in Washington. "The rewrite on the federal level could even be more important, he says.

So how did Austin Wireless beat the big phone company? Well, they ran out the clock. Thats a tried-and-true way to kill any bill or proposal. Given the choice between angering SBC or angering consumers, Texas lawmakers decided to do nothing.

That approach may well work in Congress—for now. But to make sure, tech companies are going to have to join with others to make their case.

In Texas, Dell—also based in the state—and Intel lobbied against the phone companies. So did TechNet, the tech industrys lobbying group. The Consumers Union, as well as the states municipal leagues, also joined in. So Austin Wireless had widespread support when it went to talk to state legislators.

Those circumstances need to be recreated at the federal level. The fight, as MacKinnon indicates, is an important one for many cities and towns anxious to keep jobs and encourage innovation.

The 1996 Telecom Act wont be rewritten this year—work in earnest probably wont start until after the 2006 elections—but change is coming. The phone companies are all ready. Tech should be ready, too.

eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog. She can be reached at mailbox@chrisnolan.com.

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