Congress Tunes In to WiFi

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, June 27, 2005; 10:45 AM

Mick Jagger said it best: 'The summer's here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy."

The streets run through U.S. cities and towns, where the heat is on local governments to provide free or low-cost Internet access.

For almost a year, the debate over whether Internet access is a paid privilege like telephone service and cable television burbled along in the press and among bloggers and activists. Many see it as necessary to attract new residents, tourists and businesses. Internet service providers, however, see a threat to their billion-dollar high-speed access business. Now that cities such as Philadelphia are trying to make it a reality, the issue's significance is cresting. There's no better way to prove that than with two sets of numbers: 1294 and 2726.

The first is a Senate bill introduced last Thursday by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). The Community Broadband Act of 2005 says "no state can prohibit a municipality from offering broadband to its citizens."

The second is a bill introduced in late May in the House by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). The Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005 -- almost surely destined for shorthand treatment as "PRITA" -- says state and local governments can't offer Internet service if a private provider already does.

Shall we say, "Pistols at dawn?"

The McCain-Lautenberg bill tries to placate ISPs by saying local governments wouldn't try to kill competition. That's no surprise. McCain, chairman of the Commerce Committee, has no apparent interest in or reason to suddenly strike out against bedrock telecom businesses. Judging from this bill and nearly 10 years of covering the committee, I'd say he wants the call big providers' attention to the federal government's goal of making broadband available to all Americans, no matter where they live. That goes for rural areas where the cost of hooking up customers becomes tremendously expensive -- and subject to sweet government subsidies.

"Many of the countries outpacing the United States in the deployment of high speed Internet services, including Canada, Japan and South Korea, have successfully combined municipal systems with privately deployed networks to wire their countries," McCain said in a story on internetnews.com . "As a country, we cannot afford to cut off any successful strategy if we want to remain internationally competitive."

Here's another excerpt: "McCain acknowledged that the U.S. has a 'long and successful' history of private investment in communications infrastructure. However, he said, when the industry does not 'answer the call,' other options should be available."

While The Washington Post's Jonathan Krim last December wrote the first big story that I could find about this, the Wall Street Journal last week wrote a meaty feature story -- available here through the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- that has placed the issue front and center for marquee coverage that will engage people interested in technology and community activism for the rest of the summer and much of the fall.

The Journal story used the case of Granbury, Tex., a small town near Fort Worth that's known as an artist's colony: "After years of waiting for a local phone company to roll out high-speed Internet access in this growing lakeside town of about 6,400 people, municipal information-technology director Tony Tull took matters into his own hands. The city last year invited a start-up telecom firm to hang wireless equipment from a water tower and connect the town."

The move annoyed dominant local phone provider SBC Communications Inc., which, though it deserves praise for offering some bargain-basement Internet access prices, hasn't wired the whole city: "In 2001, San Antonio-based SBC installed some high-speed connections, but the company still hasn't rolled out its network to the entire town. According to SBC, only about 20 percent of the town is wired with digital subscriber lines, or DSL, the technology SBC uses for high-speed Internet service. In Texas, lines serving 25 percent of SBC customers haven't been upgraded."

It's worth noting, incidentally, that Sessions isn't just a concerned congressman from the Lone Star State. He is a 16-year veteran of SBC and his wife still works there, several news sources said.

The Kansas City Star weighed in as well: "In a letter to Congress, Consumers Union said it was important to 'reinforce the right of all communities to offer their residents affordable high-speed Internet access.' Consumer groups say that if allowed to set up their own wireless Internet services, including Internet voice transmission, cities and counties could provide greater access to Americans who don't have Internet service now and do it much cheaper than commercial companies."

That's how Philadelphia justifies its move. City officials, mindful of the distressing poverty throughout much of town that is not Center City, Society Hill, Olde City and the like, know they would score major points to say they are doing what they can for citizens of all incomes. And as I reported last week, Andrew Rasiej (D), a challenger to current New York City Democratic City Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, wants to bring service to the five boroughs.

The Journal story noted that the telecom industry is relying on old-fashioned "lobbying muscle" to oppose municipal access. Nebraska joined Pennsylvania and a dozen other states making moves in this area, but some tech companies are taking the other side, as the Journal wrote: "For companies like Dell, Intel and Texas Instruments, the spread of broadband is crucial. Dallas-based Texas Instruments, for example, makes chips for cable and DSL modems and for WiFi routers. ... And Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., has made WiFi a centerpiece of its strategy, bundling WiFi and other chips as part of its Centrino technology, which has been heavily advertised during the past two years. Intel has provided funding for several cities to help set up neighborhood-wide wireless networks."

One thing's for sure: this is one topic that will consume plenty of bandwidth before it's settled. While there's no way to predict how it will turn out, there's no reason why this shouldn't turn into tomorrow's headline-grabbing Supreme Court challenge. Want to bet? Share your thoughts and let's sit back and enjoy the show.

Paradise by the Wireless Light

I'm ready to switch jobs with Laurie Goering. The Chicago Tribune correspondent found a way to get her paper to wrap a trip to Mauritius -- an Indian Ocean resort island off the east coast of Africa -- in the technology beat.

Goering reported that Mauritius wants to be the first all-WiFi island: "Like many African nations, this modest country has struggled economically as the industries that underlie its economy -- particularly sugar production and textile manufacturing -- have run into tough global competition and declining prices. Looking for alternatives, the government has settled on a new and ambitious vision: Turning sleepy Mauritius with its endless sugar cane fields and tourist beaches into a high-tech computer and telecommunications center. 'It is our vision to transform Mauritius into a cyber-island,' said Deelchand Jeeha, the country's minister of information technology and telecommunications, in a speech last year. The nation, he said, 'is confident in the potential of [the industry] as an engine of growth which can generate jobs and wealth creation.'"

The City of Brotherly Love might have a noble goal in mind with citywide wireless access, but as photos like this one (and this one ) ought to make clear, Mauritius boasts a lifestyle that doesn't resemble Philadelphia in the least . If you're looking for me, I'll be on the beach.

Late Payments Will Result in Extra Fees

Miami Herald reporter Shannon Pease wrote that more companies are allowing customers to pay bills by phone. It's a faster, more convenient option, especially for people worried that they'll get hit with a late fee. Problem is, Pease reported, paying by phone can cost more than sending a late payment: "Some charge $2 a transaction, while others charge more than $14." The story said many companies recommend online payments.

On the other hand, doing it that way can be lethal. The Herald also ran this story : "An 86-year-old man with emphysema died minutes after Lakeland Electric cut off electricity to his son's home, shutting down his oxygen machine. One day after Richard Howerton brought his terminally ill father John home from a nursing home, Lakeland Electric cut off the power to his home in Kathleen because he was late paying his bill." Howerton's wife Joyce told WTSP's 10 News Now that she paid the bill online on Sunday, June 12: "She says an online prompt told her the payment would be posted in two days, but it actually took four. Her father-in-law died two days after submitting the payment, on June 14."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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