Tide is turning on muni-WiFi

After nearly three years of legal skirmishes on the muni-WiFi front, it is time to take stock: Have the battle lines moved this way or that? What positions does the enemy hold? Who occupies the commanding ground? Jim Baller, an attorney with the Baller-Herbst Law Group and a veteran of the muni-WiFi wars, did just that at the Fiber-to-the-Home Conference in Las Vegas last week.

You may recall that the incumbent telecoms engaged in a no-holds barred assault on the very idea of municipalities providing WiFi services. Forget the fact that the incumbents paid large amounts of money into the campaign coffers of state politicians to induce them to pass laws which would restrict the ability of municipalities to offer such services.  They also either created or employed various "think-tanks" who offered ideological tracts on how muni-WiFi would usher an age of socialism in America. The incumbents enjoyed some victories: There are 14 states with some restrictions on municipal telecom, with half these restrictions applying to broadband.  Also, the U.S. Supreme Court passed a ruling in 2004 which left the door open for states to enact more restrictions.

These victories by the incumbents notwithstanding, the tide is turning in favor of muni-WiFi. It is evident not only in the fact that, since the Supreme Court ruling, only one state has enacted a significant new barrier to muni-broadband, but also in the fact that although the Supreme Court has allowed that states had the right to restrict muni telecom, the battles which resulted have ended largely in defeats for the incumbents. Muni victories in Portland, OR over Qwest; the city of Truckee Donner, CA and the retreat by Ohio from plans to impose new connection requirements on muni-providers.

The most important change, though, may well be the different attitudes the incumbents themselves now take toward the issue of muni-WiFi. AT&T, for example, has participated in two municipal broadband projects so far. Michael McKeehan, Verizon Communications' director of Internet and technology policy, is philosophical. Recall that in late 2004, Pennsylvania passed a law which so severely limited the ability of municipalities to become involved with broadband, the Senators John McCaine and Joe Lieberman began to work on federal legislation which would override such states restrictions. Reflecting on the incumbents' over-reach in Pennsylvania, McKeehan says: "After the Pennsylvania debacle, Verizon [reconsidered] its strategy... We're not fundamentally opposed to muni broadband, given a couple caveats."

Municipalities and utilities currently serve 7 percent of the fiber-to-the-premises subscribers in North America.

For more on the state of muni-WiFi:
- see Ed Gubbins's Telephony Online report

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