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Keeping Muni Wi-Fi at Bay

By Carmen Nobel, Caron Carlson  |  Posted 2008-06-02 Print this article Print

Telephone and cable companies have overturned some municipal wi-fi projects, but advocates—including congress—are fighting back.

Keeping Muni Wi-Fi at Bay

While Earthlink was busy winning deals and then pulling out of them, the entrenched telephone and cable companies were continuing their efforts to keep municipal Wi-Fi at bay. “They don’t like anything that smells like telecom infrastructure that they don’t have power over,” Vos of Muniwireless.com says.

In addition to the widely publicized Pennsylvania legislation, incumbent service providers launched advertising and mass-mailing campaigns to sway opinion against public involvement. They funded reports attacking muni wireless projects by academic-sounding “think tanks,” including the Heartland Institute and the Reason Foundation. To this day, telcos restrict other providers, including cities, from using telephone poles to hang antennas.

The entrenched service providers’ lobbying campaigns in state capitals have been especially detrimental. More than a dozen states now have laws that prohibit or restrict municipalities from providing broadband services.

But there is hope for municipal wireless. Recognizing the adverse impact that the state laws have had on the nation’s broadband penetration rate, legislators on Capitol Hill are pushing to pre-empt the states in order to let cities and towns decide what’s best for their own people.

Last October, the Senate panel that oversees communications approved a bill giving municipalities the right to offer broadband services, and similar legislation is pending in the House. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House telecom and Internet subcommittee, has offered a further draft bill that supports federal protection of municipal Wi-Fi. It includes certain protections for carriers to make the federal pre-emption of the state laws more palatable to them.

Federal legislation pre-empting the state laws would likely spur more municipal wireless deployments. “Clearly, [the federal legislation] would clear the decks for more municipal Wi-Fi projects,” says Chris Murray, senior counsel for Consumers Union. “It would mean that municipalities would have less to fear in terms of retribution from incumbents. That means these projects would be less expensive.”

Municipalities interested in deploying Wi-Fi or other broadband services still have to be prepared to contend with hefty opposition from the incumbents, Murray says, adding that consumers end up footing the bill for the lost muni Wi-Fi opportunities. “Consumers pay twice for that kind of anti-competition BS,” he says. “Those dollars don’t come from the lobby fairy. They come from the rate base, the consumers. We’re paying the incumbents to keep out competition.”

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