Politics Takes on Technology

Legislation that prevents municipalities from deploying advanced network technologies is bad public policy.

Dave Molta

May 6, 2005

2 Min Read
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The Chaska case is small-fry, though, compared with Wireless Philadelphia, a plan to blanket hundreds of square miles with waves of Wi-Fi. Beyond the considerable technical scalability challenges are the immense political challenges. Local policy-makers had to devise a business plan that would allow for public-sector involvement in rolling out a potentially lucrative service without discouraging private investment in wireless service expansion by established service providers. The resulting plan is convoluted, creating a not-for-profit corporation to oversee the implementation of a cooperative wholesale model. It's a public-private partnership that's infinitely more complex than Chaska's service.

Philadelphia's Story

The Philadelphia model scares incumbent service providers, and for good reason. Providers of DSL and cable modem services have enjoyed healthy customer growth and lower equipment costs, and the duopoly environment of big telco and big cable keeps profit margins fat. They don't want a chaska.net alternative at $16 a month. The wireless carriers have even more to fear, as they struggle to engineer and profitably deliver their own mobile broadband wireless services. They all realize that the ubiquity of embedded Wi-Fi radios makes it today's most important wireless technology platform, but they don't have a clue how to build out Wi-Fi services, let alone integrate them with emerging 3G networks.

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Instead of figuring out how to leverage cheap Wi-Fi, the telecom executives have enlisted the support of the politicians they've helped get elected and the policy analysts who depend on them, often twice or thrice removed, for funding. Yes, it's a little smarmy, but they do have some good arguments regarding why we should be concerned about broadband wireless as a public utility. Governments enjoy certain advantages that could make the competitive landscape even worse than it is today, potentially discouraging critical private investment and innovation. And city hall doesn't have a stellar track record of delivering complex services. Further, even if the politicians and bureaucrats could get it right, there are more important public priorities.Still, enacting state legislation that prevents municipalities from deploying advanced network technologies is bad public policy. Five years from now, every city will have deployed publicly funded wireless service of some sort, just like they have most other modern computer and network technologies. A range of models will emerge, and though I wouldn't bet on the Philadelphia plan as the long-term winner, it deserves a chance to fail. We'll all learn something in the process.

Dave Molta is Network Computing's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]

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