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Local WiFi plan turning into a federal case

You turn the tap, and water comes out. Thank heaven; we can't live without the stuff. Digital bandwidth's getting to be just about as vital. So why shouldn't a local government -- Boston's for instance -- provide all of its citizens with good Internet service at low prices?

There are no pending plans to hook up Beantown, but a number of US cities, including Philadelphia, are committed to the idea of treating Internet access as a public utility, especially since they won't have to string miles of wire. Philly plans to spend $10 million to deploy wireless Internet service citywide, then offer it for less than $20 a month.

If Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino is tempted to imitate the Philadelphia plan, he may have to clear it with Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican in the US House. This month, Sessions offered a thoroughly odd bill that would ban cities from running communications networks that compete against private-sector telecom companies.

Those of you who thought Republicans believed in states' rights might be puzzled. If the leaders of Philadelphia or Boston or Sioux Falls want to dabble in WiFi, why should a Texas congressman make a federal case of it? Maybe it has to do with his previous career as an executive of SBC Corp., a large phone company that isn't too eager to face fresh competition.

In any case, there's plenty of resistance to Sessions' proposal. Everybody's favorite Republican maverick, Arizona Senator John McCain, has filed a bill that's pretty much the polar opposite of the Sessions measure. McCain's bill, cosponsored by Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, would guarantee cities the right to build municipal communications networks.

The McCain-Lautenberg bill would free up municipalities to run dozens of large and small experiments on the best way to upgrade our digital communications infrastructure. It would also let us ask a question that remains unanswered: Do we really want cities going into the telecom business?

Depends on who you ask. Philadelphia's chief information officer, Dianah Neff, is all for it. ''We have a very large digital divide in the City of Philadelphia," said Neff, who estimates no more than 25 percent of citizens in poor neighborhoods have Internet access. ''We need to be sure that you can get high-speed access in those neighborhoods," Neff said. And if companies like Verizon Communications won't do it, city government can and should.

Neff said news of the Philadelphia plan is already causing companies to consider setting up shop there. She mentioned a group of visiting Chinese investors, who were enticed by the prospect of cheap municipal WiFi. ''They specifically mentioned to our planning director that that was one of the reasons they put Philadelphia on the list," Neff said.

Joseph Bast is unimpressed. He's president of the Heartland Institute, a free-enterprise think tank in Chicago. Bast wants to keep cities out of the telecom business, and favors using laws to keep them out. But Bast scoffs at Sessions' idea of outlawing municipal networks on the federal level. ''It's none of the Feds' business," he said. He wants state legislatures to rein in ambitious city governments. ''I think states have the right to do it and ought to do it," he said, ''because municipalities are behaving in very irresponsible ways here."

Bast points to raging competition between cable TV, telephone, and wireless companies. SBC is offering introductory DSL service for $14.95 a month; Verizon is spending billions to install fiber-optic cable and deliver Internet, telephone, and TV service to millions of homes. ''If you look at practically every place in the country," Bast said, ''access is going up, speeds are going up, prices are going down."

As for blanketing an entire city in cheap WiFi, Bast observes that if there were that much demand for it, telecom companies would be doing it already and raking in the profits. ''So you've got to ask, why isn't this being done? Because there's no business case for it."

Bast is convinced city-run communications networks make as much sense as building a football stadium to perk up a blighted city. Almost invariably, it's a waste of taxpayer money, he said.

All of the players in this squabble can point to examples that seem to prove their case. Glasgow, Ky., seems to have done a good job of delivering TV, phone, and Internet service through its municipal network. On the other hand, officials in Orlando, Fla., last week shut down free WiFi service in the downtown area. It had cost the city $1,800 a month, but on average only 27 people a day used it.

What do these examples prove? Mainly, that it's silly to try to resolve this by law, either state or federal. This is why we have 50 states; so the various regions can experiment with different solutions. Given the fact that half of US Internet households have broadband, it's not clear there's really a problem here. But Philadelphians are keen on making the effort, and the rest of us can learn from their experience. It may prove to be a fiasco, but I don't pay taxes in Philly.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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