net.wars: Every cloud has a Verizon lining

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 26 November 2004

This week, Wendy focuses on Verizon - but the "silver" reference is not some kind of award for quality and excellence. Verizon and WiFi; what a dream ticket? Nope ...

Wendy M Grossman

The city of Philadelphia not long ago decided it would be a Really Good Idea to encloud the entire city with WiFi. The announcement was one of those things that makes you want to weep for the ideal of what good, forward-thinking government can do. Philadelphia isn't the only place in the US with this sort of plan, but it's become the most famous one because awaiting the governor's signature or veto is a bill called HB30, which would make providing a subsidised low-cost service illegal.

According to public comments by Dinah Neff, Philadelphia's chief information officer, Philadelphia currently ranks 33rd in the US in terms of availability of wired or wireless connections. Less than 60 percent of the city's neighbourhoods have the option of subscribing to broadband, either DSL or cable.

Pennsylvania is also not the only state passing legislation that blocks municipal broadband rollouts; the Wall Street Journal ran an article about these efforts only this week. And guess who the Journal says is behind the drive to pass such laws? Yes, it's Verizon, the relevant Baby Bell, that is already loathed across Pennsylvania for high prices and shoddy service.

According to WetMachine, Philadelphia could still deploy its network - if it could get it out there and operational by January 1, 2006. The city expected to have it ready by June 2006. As far as I can tell, the city could still do it after that, but only as a free service. Presumably Verizon thinks that the providing a free service would be prohibitively expensive. Or perhaps out of the goodness of its corporate heart it wants to leave it open for individuals to provide Wi-Fi access to their friends and not disturb grass roots efforts to create openly accessible clouds.

There are three things that are particularly galling about this. First is the fact that the Baby Bells in general have dragged their feet so thoroughly about deploying DSL that the it took until this year for broadband penetration in the US, where the Internet took off first, to reach 50 percent of active Internet users. (To be sure, the motive for switching from dial-up was less for Americans because local phone calls were free; in the UK, where local calls were charged by the minute, heavy Internet users wanted to change to flat rate as quickly as possible.) One consequence of this is that most US consumers are on cable if they have broadband - and cable access to the Internet is a more limited service. Comcast, as has been documented here before, has some pretty unpleasant ideas about what constitutes residential broadband service. Probably most people don't want to run servers as home, as I do at the end of my DSL connection, but on a Comcast connection these days you can't even VPN into your home network to grab a file.

The second thing is that the people who will be hurt by this type of legislation are the very people who are underserved now. To get DSL you have to be within a relatively short distance of the exchange; to get cable you have to be in a large enough community that the cable company thinks it's worth running lines. Both physical realties favour urban residents, the very people who have the easiest access to the locations that supply Internet access to those who don't have it at home: libraries, schools, and Starbucks. What is this, payback for years of having to provide universal service

The third thing - and this is a reason telecoms companies that have wireless subsidiaries, as Verizon does, might object - is that there is enormous logic to municipal wireless. One of the few failings of Wi-Fi is that there is no way to hand off between nodes. It's not mobile the way mobile phones are: if you initiate a connection to transfer a large file you need to stay in that location until the transfer finishes. A municipal cloud might have no such problems, at least within the city limits. Even without that arcane point, the logic is still enormous: when electrification was considered important, municipalities set up their own services. Why should broadband, now that the Digital Divide is on everyone's agenda, not be deployed the same way?

The fact that bills like HB30 even exist is rather sad. One of the key characteristics of US government has always been its many layers. Where in the UK local government only has power because central government has delegated it, in the US states and municipal governments have their own tax-raising powers, and states have rights that federal law cannot trump. For a legislature to overturn a municipality's perfectly reasonable plan to benefit its residents on behalf of one or two large corporations seems like inserting its power where it doesn't belong. It's substituting the bad side of government for the good. Wrong way round, folks. Of course, this is also the state that last year passed a law requiring ISPs to block Web sites containing child porn, so understanding Internet issues isn't really this legislature's strong point.

One hopes that Governor Rendell will see sense.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).