New Haven Advocate, December 1, 2005 - Take My WiFi, Please
Sometimes, citizens take matters in their own hands. If the residents of an apartment building buy small routers for their apartments, they often have enough coverage radius that the street in front of them becomes a wireless hotspot. Many businesses offer strong wireless signals, knowing that neighbors can use the signal (in our offices, the Omni Hotel “WiFi”wireless fidelitysignal is strong enough that we can use it). In New York City, NYC Wireless, a non-profit organization, has gotten parks to agree to place routers at key spots to turn the parks into free wireless hot spots. So you can sit in Bryant Park or Union Square and check your email on your laptop. Parks and businesses and citizens can team up, too, to make a whole block or neighborhood WiFi-enabled.
Then there is “municipal broadband.” Dana Spiegel, the executive director of NYC Wireless, defines municipal broadband as “merely the local government stepping in to spur the development of universal coverage and affordably priced broadband.”
In Lafayette, La., the government built its own fiber cable network and has become a wholesale broadband internet provider. It not only gets revenue from its internet customers, but it also gets savings on its telecommunications costs, because it no longer has to pay a telecom company to carry its phone and internet traffic.
But more commonly, says Spiegel, “municipal broadband could be the government putting out a contract with a company after an appropriate competition, and providing guaranteed rates for the use of local, government-owned facilities in order to build a network that is run by the private companyand also, in exchange for this, requiring that there be affordable access provided to all members of the community.
“The most popular model is to contract out the building, operation and maintenance of the network, let a private company do all the development, but they get use of government-owned buildings for the infrastructure [like antennae].
“This is not a new modelthis is how cable TV was developed,” Spiegel adds. “The city said, ’Okay, we’ll franchise you to do this, we’ll give you access to our rights of way, you can use under our streets, on our buildings. In exchange, you need to pay us, provide community access TV, and all sorts of other things. And these are the benefits that a local government got out of a business using their resources.’”
With wireless web, the benefits would be different, but the franchise model could be the same.
Meanwhile, these large companies, fat with profit, have shown very little interest in building a better internet. The telecoms have, according to NYC Wireless’s Dana Spiegel, “been promising for 20 or 30 years, in exchange for getting subsidies and tax credits, to build broadband infrastructure. We taxpayers have given them everything they wanted and we’ve gotten nothing. They promised 15 years ago to build nationwide fiber infrastructure. They laughed all the way to the bank. They have been spending all of their money over the past five to 10 years lobbying for their agenda and not doing a whole lot to provide better, cheaper broadband. And they’ve been found to bypass low-income communities.”
What we have here is a market failure. As much as some economists assure us that the free market will take care of us alland it’s true that the American free market has brought us a wealth of computer and technology innovationin this crucial area we have fallen way behind. The European and Asian countries where government and private industry have worked together, now have faster, cheaper, more accessible broadband internet.
That helps poor people get jobs. It helps small businesses compete. And, yes, it helps lonely people find dates. It spreads the benefits of the internet across the population.