Let's face it: the United States has very spotty broadband coverage.
Except in major markets, regular consumers have little or no choice of a broadband provider. And even in cities with several providers, the incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) and cable companies have little financial incentive to deploy anything really exciting, such as total wireless coverage with support for roaming.
Technically, it's possible to set up a citywide wireless grid that supports connections on a notebook in the back of a cab or on a handheld as you wander around town. But what's in it for the Verizons, the Comcasts, and the SBCs of the world? Apparently, not enough revenue. Otherwise, you can be sure that those networks would already be broadly available.
However, it's a great way for cities to market themselves and attract businesses and tourists, so it's becoming a hot area for municipal governments to explore. Lots of smaller cities are setting up small pilot programs, and some others, such as Los Angeles (click here for PDF)
, are setting up much more ambitious projects for total coverage.
How are municipal broadband programs being received? With fear and uncertainty and doubt, that's how. In the wintry weeks at the beginning of this year, I wrote about Pennsylvania State legislation that passed when Philadelphia announced its citywide wireless plan, and boy, did that column raise the hackles of some readers! Several responses to the article called it practically un-American for municipalities to spearhead their own broadband schemes. The notion that a city or a township would want to provide any kind of telecommunication service prompted cries of "nanny state." On the other side of the equation, the fact that large corporations use their influence and the states' legal systems to throw stumbling blocks in front of such townships had others crying "corporate conspiracy."
Technically, it's possible to set up a citywide wireless grid that supports connections on a notebook in the back of a cab or on a handheld as you wander around town.
Our Town, our ISP
This month's Mother Jones magazine tells the sad tale of three cities west of Chicago, collectively known as the Tri-Cities, and their attempt to become a municipal ISP. In an article called "GigaFight," reporter David Case outlined the cities' plan to use fiber-optic cable for an upgrade of the public utility's power lines to provide low-cost broadband access. The plan was to ease property taxes by generating indirect revenues, a system that the cities had learned from the example of Thomasville, Georgia, which serves about 70 percent of its Internet customers with broadband access.
As responsible local governments, the Tri-Cities threw the issue open to referendum before investing public funds in the infrastructure. It was then that the broadband providers showed up. Comcast and SBC, which served the neighboring area but had thus far kept the Tri-Cities on the back burner, mounted what Mother Jones called a dirty tricks campaign. Comcast ran negative announcements on its network of TV stations, SBC sent billboard trucks through town, and both companies used direct-mail campaigns to cast a shadow over the initiative.
The favorite theme of the detractors was government waste. If you want to kill an initiative, make taxpayers think that it will cause tax hikes, steal money from schools, or use their tax dollars for something reprehensible. And according to the Mother Jones article, phone pollsters played this card in trumps last fall. During a phone survey to Tri-Cities residents, callers asked leading questions, such as whether taxpayer money should be used to allow pornography into homes. Irritating tactics indeed, but by this point it was clear that the referendum would not pass. Sure enough, the Tri-Cities municipal-broadband initiative died. Fortunately for residents, however, Comcast and SBC did come forward with their own broadband offering to the neighborhood. But that was only after spending a reported $300,000 to squash the Tri-Cities civic initiative. If broadband providers put that kind of money into their own cable and switching infrastructure instead of negative campaigning, maybe underserved townships wouldn't need to consider doing it for themselves.
If the police, fire, and other municipal services need a network, why not throw it open to the people?
Tax dollars at work?
Even in cases where cities aren't explicitly competing for broadband subscriber dollars, as the three cities in Illinois apparently were, municipal broadband initiatives aren't always about governments overreaching their mandate. Some are natural extensions of essential municipal networks. If the police, fire, and other municipal services need a network, why not throw it open to the people? And if possible, why not get a little indirect revenue from it? The free public wireless networks in Spokane, Washington, and the California cities of Hermosa Beach and Riverside do this. Each of these networks generates its own revenues based on advertising.
Chicago's library hot spots don't generate extra revenue at their 79 branch locations. But they are a natural extension of the mandate for public library systems to disseminate information (and, let's not be sanctimonious about it, entertainment). Libraries across the country provide public-access Internet stations next to the Tom Clancy books, the DVDs, and the CDs. Chicago's library system took that idea and eliminated the costly middle steps of buying and supporting computers. If you bring your own computer, they'll provide the hot spot.
Some may argue that this steals revenue from T-Mobile Wi-Fi at the local Starbucks or Borders. Perhaps so, but so does Panera Bread with its free wireless access points. And from a pragmatist's point of view, what do I care if it's a baker or a township that's getting me online? If they build it, I'll come.
Do you think cities should offer wireless broadband to their citizens? Tell me about your progress or lack thereof in the TalkBack below.