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Adding Costs and Concerns

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.

Adding Costs and Concerns

A case in point is the aforementioned prohibitive state law in Pennsylvania. Its negative impact on the development of community wireless goes beyond the strict prohibition, experts say. It also serves as a subtle deterrent by adding costs and concerns even in communities that are able to pursue a network within the law’s constraints. Pittsburgh built a downtown Wi-Fi network with funds from several foundations, but the state law added costs and concerns to the initiative.

“There is no question that the law constrained the options available to us and forced us to spend time looking into legal issues that could have been better spent on other things,” says Jon Peha, associate director of the Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking at Carnegie-Mellon University, and an adviser to the Pittsburgh city council. “Some cities might be reluctant to even start because it is not simple to figure out what is allowed and what is not.

“In Pittsburgh, we have some good telecom attorneys. Any city—especially a small city—has to consider the fact that it could be in a lawsuit with a company that has deep pockets and many lawyers.”

In 2005, Upper Dublin Township, a Philadelphia suburb with 26,000 people, built a small wireless network in a hurry to qualify for a one-time exemption under Pennsylvania’s anti-muni-broadband law. The exemption allows the town to own the wireless infrastructure, but it is stymied in other ways. For one thing, it can’t provide services to anyone outside the community.

Even worse, says Township Manager Paul Leonard, it can’t work with neighboring towns to gain economies of scale in building the system.“The chilling effect [of the state law] is that I don’t have other municipalities sharing the design cost,” Leonard says. “I can’t go to four or five municipalities and say, ‘Let’s work on this together.’”

Today, Upper Dublin is planning to expand its network to create more robust wireless options for city departments. It would also like to provide alternative options in the face of rising prices from the incumbents and provide services in areas that have fewer than two broadband carriers, Leonard says.

“The demand for broadband is such that there is a place for both for-profit and municipal entities to provide services,” he says. “When we look at the importance of this type of technology for the economic vitality of the community, we think there’s room for everybody to be in this business.”

Jim Baller, senior principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group in Washington, D.C., was instrumental in blocking the incumbent carriers’ lobbying efforts in many states. He cautions that there isn’t a single model that will work for all municipalities interested in deploying wireless services, but adds that cities need to play a major role.

“Do local governments have to be significantly involved for this to work?” Baller asks. “I’d say that’s generally true. The decision should be made cautiously because of the risks involved, but that ought to be the government’s choice, not an incumbent provider’s choice. We ought to be in a position for local communities to decide what’s good for them.”

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