Cities Wise to Reverse Thinking on Broadband

Published March 24, 2006

Steven Titch ([email protected]) is senior fellow – IT and telecom policy for The Heartland Institute. The following letter was sent to The Wall Street Journal on March 24, 2006.

Dear Editor:

Your article detailing how cities are contracting with commercial Internet service providers [“Companies That Fought Cities On Wi-Fi, Now Rush to Join In,” March 20] shows how municipal wireless is an idea whose time never actually arrived … and now has already passed.

That cities are turning to EarthLink, Google, MetroFi, phone, and cable companies to tackle urban wireless validates what policy analysts and think tanks such as The Heartland Institute have been saying for years: Cities lack the money and expertise to enter the broadband business. Far from there being a broadband “market failure”–a claim municipal wireless supporters continually repeat to justify government-owned broadband–there are, in fact, numerous service providers that see profits in low-cost, wide-scale urban wireless.

There still is need for transparency in these contracts, and legislators should be wary of creating indirect subsidies through underpriced right-of-way or favored access to public property. Cities also need to have enforcement mechanisms that ensure their partners meet service mandates and don’t simply place service in high-revenue areas already saturated with wireless hotspots and drag their feet elsewhere.

Telephone and cable companies were never against the idea of wide-area urban wireless–just the notion that a local government should use taxpayer money to compete with businesses that it regulates, taxes, and licenses. It’s America’s cities and towns that have reversed their thinking on municipal wireless, not the telecom industry.

Steven Titch
Sugar Land, Texas