Wi-Fi battle escalates

The battle over whether municipalities can act as their own utilities to provide broadband Internet access is intensifying.

The battle over whether municipalities can act as their own utilities to provide broadband Internet access to their residents is intensifying, with the pending introduction of bills in more states aimed at restraining the growing movement while backers of municipal broadband worked to raise their profile.

A group of more than 60 national, state and local organizations released what they termed an open letter to state and federal officials calling on them not to raise barriers to municipalities providing affordable broadband access.

"Municipalities should be able to meet the needs of their local communities," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Media Access Project (MAP), a public interest law firm. "They shouldn't have to hemorrhage jobs or fail to provide vital services because (commercial service providers) would rather regulate than compete."

Meanwhile, the New America Foundation took its case for municipal wireless broadband projects to the U.S. Congress on Feb. 22, hosting an informational session for members of Congress and their staff.

Participants included Dianah Neff, the chief information officer of Philadelphia, which has become a lightning rod for the pro and con argument for municipal broadband after it announced last year it would build its own wireless network. Others included Oscar Martinez, the assistant city manager for Corpus Christi, Texas, and Sascha Meinrath, co-founder and project coordinator for the Champagne-Urbana Community Wireless Network in Illinois.

Twenty states now have legislation on the books or in pending bills that would severely curtail the ability of municipalities to offer broadband services, while similar legislation is being considered in other states.

A draft bill backed by service providers such as Sprint, Bellsouth, Verizon and Comcast is making the rounds in Florida, for example, even though similar legislation died last year when the state House and Senate could not agree on the final form of the legislation. Meanwhile, hearings on an Oregon bill were held last week.

However, proponents of municipal broadband can also point to encouraging signs.

An Indiana House bill introduced earlier this year, for example, quickly died in committee without being voted out for a floor vote. And in January the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled against a Bellsouth claim that the city of Laurinburg could not use government-owned facilities to offer broadband services.

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