Why Fie?

How politics are preventing public access to the internet

| January 26, 2006


People want the internet. People need the internet. Now it's just a question of getting the internet to the people. The Department of Commerce estimates that significant computer skills will be needed for 95 percent of new jobs created. You can't even apply for many jobs without being online. If it's the government's duty to maintain roads and provide gas and electricity, then why not the internet? Robert McChesney and John Podesta, writing in Washington Monthly, suggest that the problem isn't economic, it's not even technological. The problem is political.

As Utne.com has reported, the city of Philadelphia set off a flurry of controversy when it announced plans to install a city-wide Wi-Fi 'mesh.' The deal seemed like a huge win for the people of Philadelphia: Everyone would get access to the internet, and no tax dollars would be used. The network would be funded with bonds and private investment. The city even chose a private company, EarthLink, to build and maintain the network. But with visions of Philadelphia as one big Wi-Fi hotspot, the powers-that-be got scared. The state Legislature quickly passed a bill barring municipalities from setting up wireless networks. And Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican, introduced a similar bill on the federal level.

Philadelphia managed to get an exemption to the state law so that it could go ahead with its municipally owned network. But the question remains, why would anyone want to ban public internet? Some say it would prevent competition, but in many cases, cities can renegotiate contracts in the event of problems, according to the New Rules Project's Minneapolis Wireless Initiative. The Heartland Institute, a pro-privatization Chicago-based research group, has even implied that municipal Wi-Fi networks could make cities accessories to internet crimes. But another answer can be found in the nickname of the Pennsylvania legislation banning public internet. According to the Washington Monthly, many in the state Legislature nicknamed it the 'Verizon bill.'

The established telecom companies have a clear vested interest in maintaining the status quo. CNETNews.com reports that Verizon charges $30 per month for internet access in Philadelphia, whereas the municipal Wi-Fi would cost consumers $16 to $20. While the telecom companies -- with their heavy subsidies and political clout -- may not want to rock the boat, McChesney and Podesta argue that the status quo will no longer do. The United States is falling behind the technological curve as countries like Japan actively pursue municipally owned internet systems. The 'digital divide' is allowing populations with internet access to surge ahead in innovation and education, leaving those without it in the dust. The United States is putting itself on the wrong side of this divide by passing laws discouraging internet access. There are legitimate debates going on right now about Wi-Fi access. But the question shouldn't be whether or not it should be set up. The question should be 'how.'



Go there >> Let There Be Wi-Fi

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