Municipal Wireless Networks

Increasingly, the Internet is becoming a cornerstone American life, as much of the public, private, educational, and economic life of Americans have both online and offline components. As full participation in civic, commercial and social life is tied to Internet and computer literacy and access, high speed access is becoming a necessity rather than a luxury.

This trend was clearly recognized by the US government during the 1990s which championed the Internet and used the power of the federal government to encourage its growth. The Internet’s initial rapid diffusion in the U.S. during the late 1990s was influenced by a wide range of federal policies: the privatization of the Internet early in the decade; the decision to exempt online sales from federal tax; Commerce Department grants for projects that brought new communication technologies to low-income communities; and the federal rateĀ policy of subsidizing investments in Internet technology by public schools and libraries (DiMaggio, Celeste et al. 2004).

The stark reality in 2006 is that while the US has made significant gains in broadband adoption, a first step in closing this gap, it still lags far behind other countries (Bleha, 2005). The US also trails these countries in terms of the average speeds available over their broadband connections (Little, 2005). Recent commentary has characterized US broadband among the “slowest, most expensive, and least reliable in the developed world” (Bleha, 2005).

Over 350 cities in the United States have announced plans to deploy wireless broadband networks. Municipalities have decided to enter the telecommunications realm because of the cost savings opportunities that new Wi-Fi technologies offer. In addition, these municipalities are making claims that Wi-Fi networks would enhance economic development, provide for additional tourism, support city services and personnel, and perhaps decrease the digital divide. Municipalities enjoy certain advantages in this space. While local governments do not have control over state and federal policies, they do have control over local policies. These local policy efforts can influence communications infrastructure deployment, business and residential demographics that shape demand, and the nature and quality of existing infrastructure all which can have a direct impact of the development and deployment of municipal wireless networks (Gillett and Lehr 1999). Given existing municipal assets such as buildings, rights of way and structures that can house wireless antennas, yet another incentive is that municipalities may enjoy lower cost of broadband infrastructure deployment.

As municipal wireless broadband deployments have become more high profile in the past two years, private sector providers have expressed a number of concerns. Private providers understandably express concern that cities providing wireless broadband service have an unlimited base from which to raise capital, act as a regulator for local rights of way and tower permitting, own public infrastructure necessary for network deployments including street lights, and are tax-exempt organizations. Several reasons have been discussed for dissuading municipalities from developing and deploying broadband networks. First, it has been argued that these broadband networks may cost more than the cities anticipate, resulting in money and attention being diverted away from other public interests. Second, it is fear that if these networks were allowed to flourish, the municipality would have unfair regulatory and economic advantages (Thomas 2004).

Many telecommunications companies have sought legislative relief at the state level to regulate or restrict a municipality’s ability to provide wireless broadband services to the public. With no guidance from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the Supreme Court sided with the FCC and various incumbent ILEC lobbyists in its decision in Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, to allow states to bar their subdivisions from providing telecommunications services. The opinion gave states the authority to determine when and where municipalities can deploy communications services.

Currently most states have legislation proposed, pending or passed that prohibits municipalities from providing telecommunication services directly or indirectly. In some cases state legislatures have prevented municipalities from expanding existing networks. In other cases, state legislatures have not out rightly prohibited the development and deployment of municipal broadband networks, they have created organizational and bureaucratic barriers causing these networks to be curtailed, reconfigured or resized.

Thus the current setting is that most municipalities are caught between citizens, local businesses and their own employees who are demanding high quality, affordable, universal broadband Internet service and their State legislators and incumbent telecommunications companies who seek to keep the offering of telecommunications services out of public hands, yet cannot, or will not, comply with local citizen and business demands. In some cases municipalities have entered into public-private partnerships in which they do not offer broadband service directly, but instead offer rights of way, government employee contracts, among other things to either an outside non-profit or local Internet service provider to offer the service on their behalf. These negotiations usually result in hybrid organizations offering service to consumers at reduced prices, covering more square miles and reaching underserved populations, as well as complying with some of the more restrictive state policies.

Publications

Tapia, A., Maitland, C. and Stone, M., (2006) “Making IT Work for Municipalities: Building Municipal Wireless Networks,” Government Information Quarterly. Vol. 23. Issue 3, pages 359-380.

Tapia, A. and Ortiz, J., “Municipal Responses to State-Level Broadband Internet Policy”, Telecommunication Policy Research Conference Proceedings, Washington, D.C., September 30-October 2, 2006.

Ortiz, J. and Tapia, A., “Deploying for Deliverance: The Digital Divide Discourse in Municipal Wireless Networks,” American Conference on Information Systems (AMCIS), Acapulco, Mexico, August 2006.

Tapia, A., Maldonado, E., and Ortiz, J., “Making Good on Municipal Promises: Can Municipal Wireless Broadband Networks Reduce Information Inequality?” Information Resources Management Association (IRMA), Conference Proceedings, Washington, D.C. May 2006.

Tapia, A., “Bandwidthing Together: Municipal Wireless Broadband Networks,” American Sociological Association Annual Meeting. Montreal, Quebec, Canada. August 2006.

Tapia, A., Stone, M. and Maitland, C., “Public-Private Partnerships and the Role of State Legislation in Wireless Municipal Networks,” Telecommunication Policy Research Conference Proceedings, Washington, D.C., September 23-25, 2005.