It's campaign season again, and there's a new issue in town: public wireless Internet access. Raleigh has incorporated free wireless into its Fayetteville Street plan. Cary appointed a committee to study the issue and decided only to publish a list of local businesses that offer the plan. The Indy has tried to keep the issue alive by including it in our own candidate questionnaires. And it's also been an issue in candidate forums, nowhere more than in Chapel Hill.
Amid thoughtful discussion of the usual complex issues, like stormwater and land use planning, candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council are discussing the pros and cons of public broadband access. Will Raymond, a member of the town's technology advisory board, has long been a proponent. Fellow candidate Laurin Easthom made support for wireless part of her platform right out of the gate. Incumbents Mark Kleinschmidt and Ed Harrison are vocal supporters, as are challengers Jason Baker and Bill Thorpe. Mayor Foy says he needs to know more before he can offer his support.
There are some basic questions to answer: Would this system be run by the town as a utility, or by a private company? Who would it be designed to serve? How much would it cost? How would the town pay for it?
The town tech board is working on a proposal that would answer those questions, which they hope to bring to the council by the start of the next term. "We're handling this with the most extreme care," says tech board member (and non-candidate) Uzoma Nwosu, "because we'd rather do it right than do it again."
Lots of other cities are offering wireless around the country--and in North Carolina. The Johnston County town of Clayton, population 12,000, plans to blanket the town with hotspots that would allow anyone to go online for free for 30-minute increments. Right next door to Chapel Hill, the town of Carrboro offers free wireless broadband access in the downtown district around Weaver Street Market. But none of the Triangle's free wifi offerings are designed to be residents' primary Internet service.
Chapel Hill has grander ambitions, Nwosu says. Any program it undertakes would go way beyond the coffee shop laptop crowd on Franklin Street. The board is looking at low-cost ways to offering access to every citizen by blanketing neighborhoods, especially those whose residents have lower incomes and are less likely to be broadband subscribers. And if you're going to serve everyone in town, that means serving many college-educated, tech-savvy professionals. "They have computers, wifi-enabled PDAs--you name it, they're running it. Their uses and needs might exceed what these other towns are offering," Nwosu says.
Most exciting, he says, is the opportunity to reach across the digital divide. "How can we help the school system reach out to under-served neighborhoods, to get to those houses where children don't have computers or Internet access plugged into the technology age? It's one of my personal goals in this committee, to make that happen."
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system already has a program in place that provides refurbished computers to students who otherwise wouldn't have them. Ray Reitz, the school system's chief technology officer, says he's excited about the prospect of a wireless program that could get those kids online. "The schools are very interested in finding ways to offer access to our under-served communities," he says. "We're interested in working with the town in any way we can to make this happen."
He knows that cost, organization and management, and to a lesser extent security, need to be ironed out. Nwosu adds another to the list: constantly changing technology. WiFi, the current technology, is cheap but covers only small areas (10 miles at best). The next generation, WiMax, is much more expensive but covers much more ground (up to 30 miles). Going ahead with a WiFi system now, he says, "is like us giving everybody a VHS system when everyone's using DVDs."
But excitement over the plan is growing, Nwosu says. "I sense urgency to get it done now, so that at least the options are on the table and when the new people come that it would be an item of business for them to act on. We want this to happen. And I tell ya, it's only a small piece of the vision of digital government that we've been pushing all along."
There's another incentive to get it done quickly--it's not just technology that's changing. So is the law.
Several states have already passed or barely defeated initiatives to prevent towns and cities from implementing plans like the one Chapel Hill is looking into. In North Carolina, no such legal barrier exists so far. But telecom and cable industry lobbyists have been working hard to keep their lock on broadband service.
The city everyone has an eye on is Philadelphia, where, after years of highly successful charter projects in inner-city neighborhoods, the city made a decision to implement low-cost wireless broadband access continually around the city. That meant standing up to some very angry telecom companies, which already have a monopoly in phone and cable service in Philly. Earthlink is expected to win the Philly contract, and subscriptions will cost $20 per month, half that for low-income residents, with continuous coverage throughout the city.
In San Francisco, Google wants to provide a citywide wireless broadband system that would challenge cable and telecom monopolies there. Municipal wireless is a way for new players to inject some real competition into the otherwise monopolized world of telecom services.
At the federal level, there are a few bills floating around, some good and some bad. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas (naturally) and former telecom executive (yep), is sponsoring a revision to the 1996 Telecommunications Act that, among other things, would prohibit state and local governments from providing Internet service if a private provider already does. Meanwhile, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) have introduced the Community Broadband Act of 2005, a good bill that would override any state laws restricting municipal broadband. "This is the best bill to support at the federal level," says Craig Aaron of Free Press, a media reform activist group. "It's very clear-cut. It would free up local communities to figure out what's best for themselves." (Oddly, McCain has also backed the Sessions bill; presumably there's enough in it he likes that he's willing to hold his nose and deal with the muni issue in a separate piece of legislation. Just can't figure that guy out.)
If you like that idea, call Liddy Dole (202-224-6342) and Richard Burr (202-224-3154) and ask them to back S. 1294, the Community Broadband Act. Quick, before Verizon gets to them.