With the onset of a new year full of promise and innovation,
it would be nice to wax lyrical about the spread of wireless Internet access and the many benefits thereof. But some developments in the northeastern United States are enough to dent anybody's optimism. This story begins last September when the city of Philadelphia launched a plan to develop a multimillion-dollar wireless mesh network to provide free or low-cost coverage for all 135 square miles of the city. The city already provided free wireless access in what used to be a skateboard hot spot, Love Park. About 1,200 laptop and PDA toters use that hot spot every month, so the City of Brotherly Love decided that wider coverage would be a welcome addition to city services and bring other benefits in its wake.
Less than 60 percent of Philadelphia has access to any kind of broadband coverage.
A welcome addition, indeed. On Intel's Most Unwired Cities Survey
, Philadelphia ranks a fairly low 33rd in the United States, behind top dogs San Francisco, Orange County, and Washington D.C. A municipal wireless mesh network such as the one used in, say, the London Borough of Westminster, would raise the City of Brotherly Love to third in the States for wireless access. Philly at large is pretty much virgin territory for this kind of networking; in fact, less than 60 percent of the city has access to any kind of broadband coverage. The city's incumbent phone company, Verizon, does not see enough projected profit to set up broadband infrastructure to all of the neighborhoods in the city itself. And it's an immutable law of politics that where capitalism leaves a void, socially conscious governments rush in.
Philadelphia's CIO Dianah Neff spearheaded Wireless Philadelphia, a plan to develop a wireless mesh network covering the city, with Wi-Fi standard 802.11b hot spots as on-ramps. It's an infrastructure that's been used in dozens of smaller municipalities, from the relatively compact London Borough of Westminster to the tiny Yorkshire town of Langtoft.
Wireless Philadelphia had fairly modest costs for a project of this scale, around $7 to $10 million to set up, with a projected $1.2 million annual cost of upkeep. At this early stage in the planning phase, there are five possible funding models for the plan. So technologically and financially speaking, the plan is not only feasible but also desirable and easily rolled out between June of this year and June 2006. The plan drew interest from around the world, and it has been touted as one step Philadelphia is taking to revitalize business and residential interest in the city.
But there's one huge impediment: Pennsylvania House Bill 30.
The stumbling block
This broad telecommunications bill had been sitting around in committee in the state capital of Harrisburg, in a condition universally acknowledged as "languishing," for a year before Philadelphia announced its Wi-Fi plan. But within two months of the announcement of Wireless Philadelphia, it passed with a stumbling-block section specifically addressing broadband access. Section 3014(H) of the bill essentially forbids any "political subdivision" or entity created by one (that is, a local government or government-created nonprofit) from providing for a fee any telecommunications service for the public. Broadband Internet access is specifically cited as such a service. Many interested parties looked upon this as corporate protectionism at the expense of cities and their residents. It certainly struck a blow to Philadelphia and its wireless initiative.
The bill allows local governments to offer broadband Internet access to its residents, but only after checking in with the local exchange telecommunications company.
There is a clause that could help Philly and any other municipality following in its wake: The bill allows local governments to offer broadband Internet access to their residents, but only after checking in with the local exchange telecommunications company. The telco has two months to respond, and if it says no, the telco has 14 months to build a network of similar speed as the one the municipality proposed. Cable and phone companies with broadband offerings are protected, but it makes the job of a municipality all the harder. And the clause provides no price controls on the telco. Wireless Philadelphia's projected user costs are on a scale of $15 to $25 per month. Other individual broadband offerings in the area start in the $30 to $35 range and go up rapidly from there. In new markets that a telco optioned under HB30, there seems to be no provision for price-matching the existing services.
Fortunately for Philly, the project that precipitated this legal lockdown will not be cancelled because of it. Toward the end of last year, following the passage of Pennsylvania HB30, Philadelphia approached the incumbent phone company, Verizon, which waived its right to develop a wireless network in the City of Brotherly Love. So Wireless Philadelphia continues apace. But the fear is that when the bill's provisions go into effect, other municipalities in the state will be hamstrung in their efforts to bring universal wireless availability to their residents. And I can't help feeling that corporate pressure will bring about similar legislation in other states--assuming they don't already have such laws in place. That's too bad for municipalities that want to give a little extra back to their taxpayers. And, of course, it plain stinks for the taxpayers themselves.
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