NYC Considering City-Wide Broadband
By Carlo Longino, Thu Jan 13 21:00:00 GMT 2005

Get ready for another municipal broadband battle. With parts of the city still woefully underserved by wired high-speed access, New York is contemplating offering a city-wide wireless network.

Businesses in some of New York's outer boroughs feel left out since their industrial areas aren't equipped for wired broadband, and city officials say wireless may be the only way forward for the city. Incumbent providers haven't rolled out high-speed services in the area because they don't think they can serve them profitably, so the CEO of Tropos Networks pitched the idea of a metro-scale mesh Wi-Fi network (which, of course, Tropos sells).

Any moves towards such a network are likely to evoke a response similar to that which nearly derailed Philadelphia's plans to build its own city-wide wireless network. Providers there successfully lobbied for a state law giving incumbent phone companies the power to stop any municipal Internet offerings, though Verizon and the city of Philadelphia were able to reach an agreement allowing the city to move ahead, in exchange for a fee. A similar bill has been introduced in the state of Indiana.

In most areas of the United States, telecommunications and cable television providers were awarded franchises by local communities to operate, generally setting minimum levels of service they have to provide. But many incumbents interpret those franchises to be a monopoly, regardless of how many peoples' needs they aren't adequately serving, setting the stage for big battles like the one that played out in Pennsylvania. But now Intel says it will get involved to support municipal wireless broadband initiatives, in order to give a boost to WiMAX -- of which it's a big backer.

An interesting column in the Financial Times paints a slightly different picture of these municipal efforts, saying they draw attention away from market reforms, mainly on a federal level, that could have a far greater impact on a much wider number of consumers. Thomas Hazlett of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and a former chief economist at the FCC says federal spectrum policy hamstrings cellular carriers and upstarts using other technologies from being able to offer cheap, widespread high-speed coverage, and that no amount of municipal Wi-Fi will open up sufficient spectrum to make it a reality.

There's also a possibility that officials in New York, and other areas are playing a game of chicken with incumbent providers, talking up municipal networks as leverage to get them to further build out their services. After all, using public money to build networks for Internet access, particularly if somebody stands to make some money from it, remains a politically contentious issue -- particularly when many local and state governments are still strapped for cash. But New York City has shown a willingness to open up public spaces to wireless providers, so a city-wide wireless net could very well be in its future.