Tech Trends: In some towns, cheaper online access
Coming soon to a town near you: cheap, and in some cases free, broadband Internet access. At least, that's what some municipal leaders hope. But the idea of a wireless network that's run like a public utility is not sitting well with certain groups, most notably the telecommunications and cable companies that are earning serious subscription fees from broadband offerings.
Supporters of a public Internet say it will help bridge the digital divide, by providing low-cost online access to poor areas that are otherwise missing the E-revolution. Others argue that at the pace local governments move, any technology will be hopelessly outdated by the time it's fielded. At least one city, Orlando, has already shuttered its pilot program because of lack of interest.
The unfolding battle has made its way to Congress. In May, Republican Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas introduced legislation that would outlaw municipal access in certain areas. A month later in the Senate, Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey countered with a bill that would make it illegal for states to restrict cities from offering such services. The debate is still unfolding on the Hill, and laws are likely to pass this year.
Some towns, such as Marshalltown, Iowa, are ignoring the clamor in Washington and going ahead with their own Internet initiatives, with a lot of help from the private sector. In June, Marshalltown became the first Iowa city to launch free wireless service, limited to its downtown area. Anybody with a computer or handheld device that has wireless capabilities can get access to the Web, provided they're within a 20-block radius of the city center, where Nortel, the big telecom provider, has installed eight access points on local buildings. The town's leaders hope the high-tech move will lure new businesses to the area, which in recent years has been stung by a loss of manufacturing jobs. To fund the project, the town raised money from local companies and entrepreneurs, which was matched by the city and county governments.
"We had been looking for ways to set ourselves apart from other communities," says Marshalltown Mayor Floyd Harthum. "We needed to find a way to attract entrepreneurs and commercial interests."
So far, Harthum says, the wireless hotspot has helped lure a couple of new businesses. And he hopes to expand the high-speed Internet access to the rest of Marshalltown, population 27,000. That won't come cheap. A June study by Jupiter Research found that the average five-year cost to build and support a municipal network is about $150,000 per square mile. And the lower the population density, the greater the challenge to break even financially.
For Harthum, that makes private-sector funding essential.
"I don't want to create another public utility," he says.