A few weeks ago, the city of Philadelphia closed the RFP process for its much-ballyhooed municipal Wi-Fi network. With 12 bids in hand, the city plans to begin construction around September.

But the fight's not over.

Last August , Philadelphia announced plans to invest up to $15 million into a citywide 802.11b/g network to offer low-cost broadband Internet access to residents.

Predictably, the Bells fought back fiercely, railroading a bill through the state legislature forbidding political entities such as local governments from providing telecom services for a fee. Public outcry ensued, and the city obtained a waiver to the act, letting it proceed with municipal Wi-Fi.

The city wants to build a Wi-Fi network. Verizon doesn't want the competition and plays hardball to block the effort. Philly fights back and wins. Case closed, right?

PR firm funds barmy report
Wrong. Sprint, Verizon, SBC and BellSouth have joined with Comcast and other cable companies to fight the threat of government-run municipal Wi-Fi across the nation. They've funded the New Millennium Research Council, organisd by a Washington PR firm, to produce a 28-page paper
(PDF download) on why municipal Wi-Fi is bad for you.

The piece would be a hoot if it weren't so serious. Here's why municipal Wi-Fi networks are a bad idea:

  • They won't work. It's hard to build functional broadband access networks, the Bells and cable companies tell us.
  • Having more broadband alternatives diminishes competition. More networks somehow equals less choice.
  • They aren't needed anyway because consumers already have plenty of options.

The bottom line is if the Bells and the cable companies can't build it, you shouldn't be able to buy it. Hilarious.

Actually, it's scary. Anti-municipal-Wi-Fi lobbyists are now hitting up Congress to invoke the power of the federal government. Republican congressman for Texas, Pete Sessions introduced a bill that would ban municipal Wi-Fi networks nationwide. Apparently, municipal Wi-Fi is such a bad idea that the federal government need to save the rest of the US from itself.

Legitimate causes for concern
Now there are good reasons to worry about government-subsidised services. There's a legitimate concern that they unfairly skew the playing field. And there's the potential for dangerous government interference in private activities: Censoring content to keep Internet traffic "family-friendly," for example, or tracking detailed usage records.

All these issues deserve to be addressed, but heavy-handed action from Congress doesn't help air the issues. It infringes on the right of the people to band together and build for themselves what the Bells and the cable companies won't build for them.

Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. This article first appeared in Network World