McCain Bill Would Help Municipal Wi-Fi

By Roy Mark

June 23, 2005

New bill seeks to block state and incumbent telecoms' efforts to keep cities out of broadband business.

Municipal Wi-Fi supporters gained a powerful ally today as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation promoting local governments' rights to launch wireless networks in direct competition to incumbent carriers.

The Community Broadband Act of 2005 (S. 1294) adds provisions to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to allow a municipality to offer high-Internet access to its citizens.

"The billwould ensure fairness by requiring municipalities that offer high speed Internet services do so in compliance with all federal and state telecommunications laws and in a non-discriminatory manner," McCain said in his floor statement introducing the legislation.

McCain's bill stands in stark contrast to legislation introduced earlier this month by Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) calling for city governments to get out of the broadband business.

In addition to Sessions' bill, a number of battles over the same issue are playing out in state legislatures throughout the country. In early June, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a law similar to Sessions' national proposal prohibiting Florida cities from offering broadband if competitive services already exist.

"Many of the countries outpacing the United States in the deployment of high speed Internet services, including Canada, Japan and South Korea, have successfully combined municipal systems with privately deployed networks to wire their countries," McCain said. "As a country, we cannot afford to cut off any successful strategy if we want to remain internationally competitive."

McCain acknowledged that the U.S. has a "long and successful" history of private investment in communications infrastructure. However, he said, when the industry does not "answer the call," other options should be available.

"It is appropriate and even commendable, for the people acting through their local governments to improve their lives by investing in their own future," he said. "In many rural towns, the local government's high speed Internet offering may be its citizens only option to access the World Wide Web."

McCain said the bill would not limit the ability of local incumbents to compete. Instead, he said, the legislation would provide incumbents with an incentive to enter more rural and underserved areas and deploy services in partnership with local governments.

He also stressed the bill prohibits a local government from discriminating against incumbents when the municipality is acting in the roles of both regulator and competitor.

"Despite this situation, a few incumbent providers of traditional telecommunications services have attempted to stop local government deployment of community high speed Internet services," McCain said.

In recent years a number of cities, including a highly publicized effort in Philadelphia, have considered launching their own wireless networks in the face of strenuous objections from incumbents and a number of Republican lawmakers who are opposed to governments competing with the private sector.

In December, Pennsylvania pushed through laws restricting municipal-backed broadband services, with Philadelphia receiving an exemption from the new law. The city plans to sell its wireless broadband service to homes and businesses, while providing free access in public spaces.

"This bill is needed if we are to meet President Bush's call for 'universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007,'" McCain said. "When President Bush announced this nationwide goal in 2004, the country was ranked 10th in the world for high speed Internet penetration. Today, the country is ranked 16th."



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