One of the most interesting responses to the Hurricane Katrina disaster has come from the wireless network community. To compensate for the loss of much of the Gulf Coast’s communications infrastructure, several groups of information technology professionals and wireless Internet hobbyists have banded together to help. They’re stringing a distributed wireless infrastructure through the Gulf Coast, connecting refugee shelters and makeshift hospitals, enabling real-time communication with teams in the field. Using free Internet telephony, families can locate lost loved ones stranded and scattered among the disparate shelters.
I wonder what Pete Sessions makes of it.
Sessions, a Republican from Texas who owes his seat in Congress to the Texan legislative gerrymandering of 2003, owes a significant portion of his personal wealth to his career with SBC Communications, a telecom giant with a vested interest in maintaining its forty billion dollar revenue stream, most of which comes from wireless phone service and broadband internet.
Small wonder, then, that Sessions is the chief sponsor and author of the incongruously titled Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005. PITA makes its aims pretty straightforward – “to prohibit municipal governments from offering telecommunications, information, or cable services except to remedy market failures.”
The Web has gone from being the domain of research scientists and computer science majors to the one-stop combination library, marketplace and social networking tool for the entire globe. A recent survey conducted by ACNielsen concluded more than 700,000 Americans cite online auction house eBay as their primary or secondary source of income. Wikipedia, the publicly editable, free online encyclopedia founded in 2001, now contains over 750,000 articles in its English database.
The Internet, clearly, has followed a strange trajectory, from academic tool to necessary public utility. It comes as no surprise, then, that many communities have begun looking at it as such. Municipalities large and small have begun wiring themselves to offer low-cost or even free broadband Internet access to their citizens.
Cue Pete Sessions. The telecom giants have noticed this groundswell of support for broadband access as a public utility, and have dispatched their army of lobbyists and lawyers to quash it. Verizon, SBC, Bellsouth, Qwest and Comcast– all have unleashed the dogs on community Internet projects.
The Philadelphia experiment serves as a great example. The city’s plan was to provide wireless access to low-income residents at the low cost of about $10 a month, with small business getting in on the action at around $20 a month. Verizon, primary telephone provider for the state, intervened and lobbied hard in the Pennsylvania state government to see Philadelphia’s plan shut down. An eked out compromise saved Philadelphia’s program– at the cost of municipal networks for the rest of the state.
Fourteen states have legislation limiting or even banning municipal Internet networks. Washington State is among them– our law prevents public utility districts from providing telecom services at anything less than wholesale prices. The state laws, though, are small potatoes as compared to Sessions’ proposed federal legislation.
It’s not all bad news in Congress. In June, Senator Lautenberg introduced the Community Broadband Act. Co-sponsored by Senator McCain, the CBA amends the Telecommunications Act to forbid state governments from imposing legal barriers on community Internet services.
At the turn of the 20th century, as electricity and rudimentary telephony became necessities, it was municipalities that stepped up to the plate and installed the infrastructure in their cities. Municipalities today are doing the same with the the Internet. Allowing the telecom industry to continue to enforce monopolized pricing on populations held hostage would only lead to a ghettoization of information resources.