Is the Internet the Public Utility of the Future?

Cities and telecom giants fight over digital rights

| September 8, 2005

Media reform advocates maintain that the internet is a necessary utility, and as such, should be available at an affordable cost. But many people living in the United States face geographic and financial barriers to high speed internet -- putting them at a distinct disadvantage in today's digitized world. As Roberto Lovato writes in In These Times, '[C]ontrol over and access to broadband connectivity is defining global, regional and individual success.'

From the void of the digital divide, cities have stepped up to the challenge of providing universal internet access, but not without opposition from the telecommunications and cable companies eager to maintain their hegemony in the marketplace. Earlier this year, the fight over broadband garnered national attention when the city of Philadelphia and proponents of media reform won an important legislative battle against teleco and cable giants over the city's right to provide high-speed internet access; the communications companies had maintained that the city's proposal presented unfair competition.

Hundreds of cities and towns across the country are following in Philadelphia's footsteps and wiring their own communities, as CNET's interactive map charting municipal broadband projects shows. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is getting serious about encompassing the entire city with wireless, recently issuing an open call for ideas on how to make it work, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Initiatives like those in Philadelphia and San Francisco have telecommunications companies, CEOs, and the think tanks they fund on the legislative offensive. Though anti-municipal internet bills have flopped in Iowa, Florida, and Texas, Representative Pete Sessions (R-Texas) recently introduced a bill in the House that would prohibit cities from developing their own broadband networks.

While cities and communications companies battle over their rights as internet providers, some individuals have begun installing Wi-Fi networks and opening them up to their neighbors. Neighbornode, a project developed by students in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program, helps individuals share their internet access with the added bonus of neighborhood bulletin boards that connect people online and on the street.

Go there >>The Whiteness of Wi-Fi