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Fast Internet Service for The People

Telecoms Fight Plans For Public Networks

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page A01

For the millions of people who cannot afford high-speed Internet access, some local officials think they've hit on the answer: Build government-owned networks to provide service at rates below what big telecommunications companies charge.

From San Francisco to St. Cloud, Fla., an estimated 200 communities are toying with community-owned networks, sparking a battle with cable and telephone companies over how public, or private, access to the Internet should be.

Philadelphia wants to expand its public Internet service. A state law, supported by Verizon Communications, may prevent other cities from doing likewise. (Joseph Kaczmarek -- AP)

Telecoms Winning the WiFi War: The signal is clear: In the tug of war betweeen Big Telecom and little governments, the powerful telecommunications lobby is winning, which could have major implications for how wireless Internet and other high-speed Internet service is doled out countrywide.

The companies are lobbying furiously to block such plans, fearful that their businesses would be hurt. Their efforts most recently paid off Tuesday night in Pennsylvania, where a new law bans local governments from creating their own networks without first giving the primary local phone company the chance to provide service.

Consumer advocates denounce the new Pennsylvania law. They say it amounts to governments now needing a permission slip from entrenched monopolies to put a vital economic and educational tool within everyone's reach.

For them, government has a long history of providing essential public services, such as national highways or electricity in rural areas.

"The Internet . . . is a true global public utility," said Jeffrey Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, an advocate for consumer rights online. "We should be trying to provide it for free."

At least, they argue, community networks should be able to give the large companies some competition. In a February survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 24 percent of U.S. adults said they had high-speed Internet access at home. About half of those had incomes of more than $75,000 a year.

Harold J. Feld, associate director of the Media Access Project, a consumer-media advocacy group, said a phone or cable company could always come in and provide a wireless network, competing on price and service with any municipal offering.

"But who gets to decide what municipalities can do?" Feld said. "Will it be corporations?"

In some cases, governments acted out of concern that spotty service from commercial providers in rural areas might be inhibiting economic growth. Allegany County in western Maryland is building a high-speed wireless network that will be available for homes and businesses.

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