EDITOR'S DESK: The fallacy of limits on municipal WiFi

Tom Temin

Let's hope that Rep. Jim Sessions' latest legislative gambit goes nowhere. The Texas Re- publican wants to bar municipal and state governments from offering public telecommunications or network services that compete with private companies. This congressional effort matches similar measures in 14 states.

Sessions' proposal, disingenuously named the Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act is in response to what a number of municipalities have already done: set up free 802.11 networks in public outdoor areas. One example is Philadelphia, where CIO Dianah Neff is spearheading a project to cover the city with a WiFi cloud. The city fought a tough political battle with the telecom industry and state lawmakers.

Dozens of other cities, including Alexandria, Va., are setting up wireless networks.

I've been trying to figure out how this competes with private-sector offerings, such as cable or digital-subscriber-line broadband to homes. It doesn't. On the contrary, the public WiFi networks are more analogous to subways and bus lines: services only government would offer. It's not as if the hordes of people cramming the subways in New York or Washington every day are harming the taxicabs or airlines.

In fact, public networks are probably less competitive with private-network providers than subways are with taxis.

Consider who is using these outdoor networks: people with WiFi-equipped computers who are likely to also have broadband and WiFi networks already in their homes. These are people with enough money for things other than basic telephone service or TVs with rabbit ears.

Private providers already offer paid services in public places such as airports and convention centers. These are publicly financed facilities, yet you have to pay for access by the hour or day. But you don't see the carriers rushing to put up WiFi clouds in the parks.

I would like to see more free, outdoor WiFi networks in such places as the Mall in Washington. They are cheap to set up.

Parks have lighting and water fountains, paid for by municipalities. No one from the electric or water utilities has complained. Why not basic WiFi connectivity?

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