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6/21/2005
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Telecoms' Answer To Free Wi-Fi: Whine, Lie, And Lobby

Big telecom is willing to do whatever it takes to beat back municipal Wi-Fi network efforts -- as long as "whatever" doesn't involve the rigors of an open market and real competition.

Last month, TCP/IP pioneer Vint Cerf presented former Vice President Al Gore with a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award. The intention was to correct "one of recent history's most persistent political myths" and acknowledge then-Senator Gore's role in Internet development. Specifically, Gore recognized in the early 1980s that packet-switched data networks could bring great social and economic benefits.

At the time, most politicians accepted the claims of AT&T, which (correctly) viewed any innovation as a threat. The monopoly's lobbyists had first prevented the Department of Defense from building its proposed nuke-proof network, then confined the nascent Internet to academia. History is now repeating itself, as the telecom industry once again tries to prevent the emergence of new technology--in this case, free Wi-Fi networks.

Unlike the Internet, free Wi-Fi doesn't require massive federal investment. It does, however, require that the government actually allow it to happen. This now seems unlikely, thanks to the Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act (PITA) currently under consideration by Congress. The name is Orwellian, but the acronym appropriate. It might just pass, as the telecom industry has been successful at spreading its own myths about municipal Wi-Fi. Here's what the carriers want us to believe and why we shouldn't:

1. It's about big government. Wi-Fi networks are cheap and local, so they can be set up by small government, and only in municipalities that need or want them. The carriers, on the other hand, are much more comfortable with big government--the larger and more out of touch the better. That's why their lobbyists went straight to state capitals, rather than trying to bribe each municipality individually. When that failed, they went to Washington: The federal PITA was introduced by a Dallas representative (and former SBC executive) a few days after the Texas state legislature rejected an almost identical bill.

2. It's anti-competitive. This is the carriers' most popular claim, but like the talk of big government, it's projection. Municipal Wi-Fi networks are only necessary because there's currently almost no competition. The carriers are afraid to offer low-cost home broadband because it might cannibalize their existing high-cost business and consumer markets.

3. It's business-class. This is one myth for which the SBC and Verizon lobbyists aren't responsible. It comes from the outdoor mesh networking gear vendors, aided and abetted by credulous journalists. But exaggerating the networks' capabilities ultimately harms the case for municipal Wi-Fi because it results in a backlash when the technology doesn't live up to its hype. Like the early Internet itself, municipal Wi-Fi is about low-cost, best-effort service with no guarantees. Businesses may still find the networks useful--San Jose's saves my employer money every time I go there--but their main attraction is that they give the telecom industry some competition, pushing costs down and quality up.

4. It's for people who don't have computers. The carriers paint themselves as champions of the poor and downtrodden, claiming that the intended users of free networks can't afford computers. But Wi-Fi isn't just for ThinkPads and iPaqs. Desktops get cheaper every day, and PCI or USB wireless cards are cheaper still. In many areas, a few months of DSL service can cost more than hardware and software put together.

5. It's about Wi-Fi. While 802.11 is today's hot technology, the RBOCs don't just fear free Wi-Fi. The state and federal bills seek to outlaw municipalities from offering any connectivity, whether WiMAX, power lines, or fiber. Because new access technologies often need to piggyback along existing rights of way, most of which belong to municipalities, the prohibition affects private start-ups, too. Perversely, that may even be good for the makers of wireless equipment. If the roads, electric pylons, and sewers are blocked, wireless will be the only way for a small ISP to compete.

Read and respond to Andy Dornan's commentary at http://wires.networkmagazine.com.

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