Sucheta Dalal :Citizen Groups Fight Corporates for Free Internet in US Cities
Sucheta Dalal

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Citizen Groups Fight Corporates for Free Internet in US Cities  

November 24, 2005

Activists ,local governments and some private companies make efforts to build municipal internet projects despite opposition by big telecommunications coporations.


Citizen Groups Fight Corporates for Free Internet in US Cities 

by Haider Rizvi


NEW YORK - Despite strong opposition from giant telecommunications corporations, a growing number of cities across the United States are preparing plans to provide free, high-speed wireless Internet access to their low-income residents.


While medium-size cities such as San Francisco and Philadelphia are already moving fast to set up wireless Internet systems--also known as Wi-Fi--New York, the country's largest city, is also aiming at reconnecting poor communities by creating free Internet access for poor communities and small businesses.


Such moves are being increasingly challenged, however, by big telecommunications corporations that perceive community-based free Internet networks as a threat to their economic interests. Companies including Verizon, Comcast, and SBC-Yahoo are making billions of dollars by investing in DSL and fiber-optic cable links to connect American homes to the Internet.


Some 86 percent of households with incomes above $75,000 a year have broadband access, compared to just 38 percent of those with an annual incomes less than $30,000, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technologies, a Chicago-based group devoted to sustainable development-related work in urban areas.


The U.S. Congress is currently considering a bill, sponsored by Texas Republican Pete Sessions,that seeks to stop cities from providing broadband networks under most circumstances.


As many as 14 states have already passed laws that prevent public entities from competing with private corporations in providing telecommunications services, according to the American Public Power Association (APPA), a not-for-profit utilities group that supports municipal broadband initiatives.


Similar bills are also under consideration in eight other states, including Texas, Iowa, and Colorado.


Aiming to keep pace with corporate efforts to influence lawmakers in Washington, activists are leaving no stone unturned to gather support for free or low-cost broadband access for urban communities.


Supporters of community-based wireless networks point out that on the global communications scene, the United States has fallen far behind other industrially advanced nations in using broadband and related technologies.


The 30-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), for example, reports that last year the U.S. ranked 11th in the world in the prevalence of high speed Internet connections in proportion to population.


About 8.2 million U.S. households signed up for high-speed Internet access in 2004, bringing the total number of U.S. households with broadband to 31.9 million--a 35 percent year-on-year increase, according to Jupiter Research, a monthly newsletter about Internet marketing research.


Jupiter predicts that up to 69 million households--78 percent of U.S. online homes--will have broadband by 2010 if providers continue to lower their prices.


Around 43 percent of online households in the United States were connected via broadband last year. Comcast held the largest market share at 22 percent. SBC-Yahoo accounted for 13 percent, Time Warner 12 percent, and Verizon 10 percent.


The Verizon Corporation, which has four million subscribers nationwide, has sharply criticized a proposal offered this week by New York City assemblyman Jim Brennan to create free Internet access by establishing a government broadband network for the public.


"If municipalities want to get involved in Wi-Fi, we feel it is the failure of the marketplace, and that is not the case in New York," a Verizon spokeswoman told a local newspaper. "There is competition and DSL is available all throughout New York City."


Last November, Verizon also tried hard to derail Philadelphia's plans for its community Internet networks. But a last-minute deal between the company and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell saved the city's project. The deal allows Verizon to take priority in setting up its own citywide networks.


Despite legal and political obstacles posed by corporate interests, efforts to build municipal Internet projects continue to grow with the support of community activists, local governments, and some private companies.


In a countermove to Sessions' bill, Republican senator John McCain and Democrat Frank Lautenburg have proposed legislation favoring free Internet networks.


APPA's research shows that currently over 620 broadband services are being offered by publicly operated facilities all over the country.


"If the efforts are successful, people will be able to pay five dollars a month--not 50 dollars a month--for high speed Internet," says Jeff Perlstein, executive director of Media Alliance, a non-profit group that supports community Internet networks. "Plus our schools, community centers, and fire and police departments will be served by truly state-of-the-art information technology."


Perlstein was referencing plans for the city of San Francisco, but could have been speaking about any number of U.S. cities.


Whether community groups and local governments will be able to overcome corporate challenges against the initiatives to build low-cost or free Internet networks remains to be seen.


-- Sucheta Dalal