Is Low-Cost Wi-Fi Un-American?

Timothy Karr

Public broadband networks would free people from high corporate charges.

We have Big Media to thank for saving Americans from themselves. Just as the notion of affordable broadband for all was beginning to take hold in towns and cities across the country, the patriots at Verizon, Qwest, Comcast, Bell South and SBC Communications have created legislation that will stop the creeping socialism of broadband community Internet before it invades our homes.

And to think that Americans might want to support high-speed access at costs below the monopoly rates set by these few Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Today, monthly broadband packages offered by the national carriers hover above $30, barring access to millions of Americans who can’t afford the sticker price. 

Telecommunications giants have mobilized a well-funded army of coin-operated think tanks, pliant legislators and lazy journalists who stand ready to paint community Internet as an affront to American innovation and free enterprise. Their weapon of choice is industry-crafted legislation that restricts local governments from offering public service Internet access at reasonable rates. Laws are already on the books in a dozen states. This year alone, 10 states are considering similar bills to block public broadband or to strengthen existing restrictions.

Spinning broadband as theirs alone to provide, ISPs have chalked up some early victories — including a draconian law now on the books in Pennsylvania that strips local governments of the right to choose their own homegrown broadband solutions without the prior approval of a monopoly phone company. In late 2004, Verizon dictated the law word-for-word to local legislators, who then quietly slipped it into the middle of a lengthy bill that appeared to call for improved communications infrastructure for all Pennsylvanians. It will have the opposite effect. 

Forcing public broadband networks to ask permission from Verizon before offering service is akin to forcing public libraries to ask permission from Borders before checking out books.

Meanwhile, the United States has slid from first to 13th place in national broadband penetration, falling behind South Korea, Japan and Canada, where effective private-public sector initiatives have paved over the digital divide, allowing more citizens to reap the economic benefits of the open information era at a fraction of the costs we take for granted.

Not so in the United States. A nation that once prided itself as the global pacesetter in technological innovation and affordable communications is now the thrall of corporations eager to keep a basic 21st Century right — their right to connectivity — from citizens who can’t afford exorbitant access fees. How has America fallen so far back?

The struggle for accessible, locally provided broadband has been building for several years. But it didn’t hit the corporations’ radar until the middle of 2004, when larger cities such as Philadelphia and San Francisco recognized broadband access as a basic public utility — no different from water, gas or electricity — that they could provide. 

It’s easy to understand the local appeal. Broadband networks have proven a win-win for municipal governments: Community internet creates free-market competition for communications services, improves schools, enhances public safety and social services, and encourages entrepreneurs through public-private partnerships. These networks are relatively cheap to build and bring technology — and resulting economic opportunity — to low-income urban neighborhoods and rural communities that are routinely passed over by the large commercial providers.

For consumers and citizens, low-cost broadband is extremely popular. Across the country, municipal referenda and city council measures in favor of building public broadband pass easily — in some cases offering not only community Internet, but also television and telephone service.

Access to the Internet today is as much a necessity of life as the more traditional services and should be available to all,” says Jonathan Baltuch, an economic development consultant from St. Cloud, Florida, a city that voted to provide citizens with a wireless network covering 30 square miles.

According to Baltuch, St. Cloud’s municipal network has yielded a considerable return to residents. Prior to the city’s broadband network, a St. Cloud resident paid on average $450 a year for commercial Internet access. Today, they pay on average $300 a year in property taxes — money that not only provides broadband access but also supports efforts to keep city streets clean, pick up residential garbage and provide for local police and fire protection. By the city providing this one service to its residents the average household savings will be 50 percent more than the average tax bill for all city services,” Baltuch says. Further, the $3 to $4 million per year that is leaving the city to flow to corporate headquarters all over the country will stay in the local economy.”

Philadelphia decided to follow suit. Last year, Mayor John F. Street announced plans for Wireless Philadelphia” a project that by next year will provide the city’s population of 1.6 million, spread out over 135 square miles, with a full range of Internet services.

It was at this point that the incumbent ISPs began to show their horns. The ISPs are loath to loosen their stranglehold on a market that, according to the Telecommunications Industry Association, could yield $212.5 billion in revenues by 2008

With so much at stake, it was time to mark out their territory and smother municipal broadband projects wherever they began to take root. The goal was simple — legislate competition out of existence. But to do so the industry needed allies in its fight against local choice. It found them easily among state representatives willing to sell statehouse votes to fill their campaign coffers and Washington-based think tanks — such as the Cato Institute and the New Millennium Research Council (NMRC) — willing to produce research” that pleased their corporate funders.

To this mix of industry sock puppets add a gullible media. In a finely targeted media campaign, the evils” of municipal broadband were pressed upon local journalists who were willing to echo corporate concerns without digging for an opposing view. 

Too often, newspapers failed to follow the money that linked their sources at the Cato Institute and NMRC to the industry — taking at face value comments and data from these think tanks without revealing the conflicts of interest that would impugn their research.

A report discrediting community Internet issued by NMRC, for example, has been cited nearly a dozen times by journalists in the two months since its release. Not a single reporter bothered to let readers in on the fact that the NMRC receives money from the same corporations whose policy positions it just happens to profess.

On February 17, the battle over access finally graced the front-page of the New York Times, with a story pegged to Philadelphia’s ambitious plans to turn the city into one gigantic wireless hot spot.”

The first quote by Times writer James Dao went to Adam Thierer, identified as director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.” He told the Times, The last thing I’d want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility.”

Dao failed to note that the Cato Institute is funded by Verizon, SBC Communications, Time Warner, Comcast and Freedom Communications. Dao then interviewed David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, who also disparaged community networks.

Again, Dao failed to alert readers to Cohen’s web of interests that might impugn his integrity. In a previous incarnation, Cohen served as chief of staff to then Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell. Rendell has since moved into the governor’s mansion, while Cohen jumped to the private sector. This relationship might explain why last December the governor ignored widespread public opposition and signed into law the bill that shafted Pennsylvania communities seeking to offer homegrown broadband services. 

These corporations say that they’re shutting down homegrown broadband efforts to safeguard the best interests of American free enterprise. But, as Dianah Neff, Philadelphia’s chief technology officer, asked in a recent column for ZDNet: When was the last time they were elected to determine what is best for our communities? If they’re really concerned about what is important to all members of the community, why haven’t they built this type of network that meets community needs or approached a city to use their assets to build a high-speed, low-cost, ubiquitous network?”

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Timothy Karr is the Campaign Director of Free Press. Each week, he investigates the public’s stake in the future of all things media via his blog MediaCitizen.
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