According to MegaPath, the issue of public access to wireless internet access came to national attention in 2004 in the state of Pennsylvania, when city of Philadelphia was launching their initiative to make the entire city a wireless hotspot, and the telecommunications industry tried to stop it from happening. Now Florida state legislators are considering several bills that would prevent towns and cities from setting up free public wireless internet hotspotsâ€”the laws are being pushed by giant telecommunications corporations, who are concerned about local governments infringing on their profits. WMNFs Andrew Stelzer reports.
â€˜All of the companies that have fought about radio and TV are now fighting over a new spectrum,
Hannah Sassaman is an organizer with Prometheus radio project in Philadelphia.
and this is a prospecting race, who can stake out a claim will it be the big companies or will it be the big interest?â€?
Philadelphia is served by Verizon and Comcast, and neither was willing to serve low income and communities of color, so the mayor decided that they would create a citywide wireless network, which would be the largest city to do so in the United States.
â€œBusinesses were thinking about leaving because they needed high speed the city decided that it would provide it like water..â€™
There are several advantages of high-speed wireless internet access. It gives people the ability to use their laptop computers to surf the internet and use email on the street, and in parksâ€”its the same reason that many cafes and coffee shops offer the access for free. Secondly, it can help in neighborhoods or communities where companies are not providing the service over traditional wires. Jim Baller is a partner in the baller hurbst law group, a law firm that works with local governments across the country on communications issues; Baller has helped dozens of cities set up wireless Internet service.
â€œThe private sector if they were in fact meeting demand of communities would not be encountering the desire of municipalities to, itâ€™s their failure..â€?
Orlandoâ€™s downtown in a so-called internet â€œwifi hotspot. The city of st cloud also has a wifi downtown, and plans to go citywide next year; and winter springs has plans to do the same. But the lobbyists of Brighthouse and other giants in the telecom industry have pushed legislators to wrote two different laws that would eliminate cities and towns ability to create their own wireless networks. Barry Moline, the executive director of the Florida municipal electric organization, says the bills being floated in Florida go beyond just wireless internet providers.
â€œThe proposal is not just anti wireless, â€¦if a municipality wants to offer any type of service they wont be able to ..â€?
About 10 communities in Florida, including Gainesville, Ocala, and Leesburg, already have publicly created and funded communication services, which serve businesses and schools. Baller says that the battle over wireless access reveals the difference between public and private ownership of a utility.
â€œMunicipalities view broadband in a manner thatâ€™s different from private. Private needs to ear n profit over a short period of time, in order to satisfy shareholders, and there is nothing wrong with that. But broadband is so critically important for our country to ensure real access real access to decrease burdens on the environment, to enhance homeland security to underscore cultural enrichment, broadband is crucial and communities cant afford to wait..â€?
In Pennsylvania, Grassroots organizations such as Prometheus raised enough opposition that Philadelphia was given a waiver when the policy was signed into law last November, and all cities throughout the state now have until 2006 to set up their system, before the law goes into effect. Since the Pennsylvania law, citizens have been organizing in communities across the country to prevent similar laws from being passed, but there are already 14 states which have some sort of barrier which prevents municipalities from providing some sort of communication service, several of these are related to wireless. In addition to Florida, about 10 other states are considering legislation to prevent local governments from providing broadband access to the public free of charge. Bob Elak is a spokesman for Verizon, which serves 6 counties in west central Florida.
â€œWe want to work with municipal organizations but we donâ€™t think its proper for government entities to get into private sector business and itâ€™s a threat to private sector employment..â€™
Baller disputes the notion that not paying taxes gives governments an unfair advantage.
â€œOpponents of municipal efforts say that this is public vs. private that this is a field that is adequately served and they try to portray the private sector as organizations that are not benefited by public support and the telecommunication providers have gotten massive subsidies and they re getting public supportâ€¦â€?
Elak from Verizon says they are serving all of the communities equally.
â€œWe as a company are moving as quickly as the capital markets will allow us toâ€¦we invest billionsâ€?
But high-speed internet service has largely been available in higher income neighborhoods, and Moline says the so-called digital divide is getting wider.
â€œWhere cities are doing communications services, the companies are not, the companies want to keep us as third class communities, were just trying to pick ourselves by the bootstraps and serve our people better..â€?
Baller adds that the danger of falling behind is not only for the communities themselves, but the United States as a whole.
â€œAmerica is very rapidly plunging in worldwide rankings in a per capita basis and bandwidth, weâ€™ve one from being in the top circles to the bottom, and itâ€™s likely we are continuing to sink because we donâ€™t have a national policy as other countries do..â€?
There are twin bills in the house and the senate which would prevent municipalities from setting up communications networks, there is a third bill filed by Senator Constantine in the state senate which would let communities create the service but they would have to give a 60 day notice that they intend to do so.
For more information log on to www.freepress.net/communityinternet
For WMNF news, Iâ€™m Andrew Stelzer