This afternoon at Freedom to Connect opened with J.H. Snider, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, moderating a panel discussion. Participants included Varinia Robinson, program manager of Wireless Philadelphia; Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press;
Dewayne Hendricks, fiounder of the Dandin Group; and Harold Feld of the Media Access Project. What follows is a partial transcript of the discussion:
J.H. Snider: New America got involved in community networks because we’re interested in spectrum, mostly unlicensed spectrum. Municipal networks are largely using wireless networks. People have been able to understand unlicensed spectrum in ways they didn’t before.
Philadelphia has been so influential in mobilizing people on this issue. Academics for a number of years have been interested in structural separation, but no one in Washington was interested until the municipal networks got involved. Could you tell us a little about what happened?
Varinia Robinson: Our mayor had a vision of revitalizing neighborhoods. Our CEO took a look at the horizon and saw WiFi as a tool that could help bridge the digital divide. So we looked into making the entire city of Philadelphia — 135 square miles — entirely wireless.
Then some legislation raised its head. It had sat in committee for about a year and dealt with wire lines and the ability for municipalities to start cable companies and stuff like that. We’re exempt from House bill 30, which said municipalities had to complete their networks by January 2006 or go to their local LEK.
We found that there is a definite need to reach people who are not getting service from the cable providers and DSL providers.
Dewayne Hendricks: Let me turn the Way Back Machine to 1997. If you look back at the proceedings, the spectrum that was set aside was supposed to be for community networking: cities, counties, whatever. Apple Computer was one of the companies that wrote that order. This was pre-Google, and all that’s been lost. For whatever reason, the companies that did this have all disappeared.
But at the time, the economics were good enough to cover these rural areas. What we see today is a rediscovery of what was happening 10 years ago. Moore’s Law has been working all that time. It gets difficult to predict even a year ago.
My company took delivery today of a product announced two months ago. For two of these radios, the retail price is less than $20,000. 300 megabits. 125 miles. My company East Bay Mud has had wireless networks that cover hundreds of square miles. I fully expect to see this drop down. Two to three years from now, we should see gigabit radios and Wi-Fi prices.
The other trend is something called sensor networks. Smart dust. Think of radios that are grains of sand. You deploy them by throwing them out. They mesh automatically. There are a number of companies doing this like Dust Networks in the Bay Area.
Ben Scott:There are about 10 states out there that have tried to put a prohibition on unlicensed broadband. They’re in for a big surprise on municipal broadband. Communities are all at the state capitols. But you also see individuals writing to their legislators. What this represents to me is a fundamental shift in media and media policy.
Before the debate was about distribution. What content gets out. Now the debate is about control over access; who controls the network? People for the first time are getting control of their own networks. That’s a revolutionary moment in the history of media policy. Its a liberating moment.
The only way to take advantage of that is to have broadband in your community that is universally available and universally affordable. That’s the real driving force.
Harold Feld: Does everyone remember the comic strip Li’l’ Abner? Do you remember the Schmoo? It was really happy, and when it was boiled it tasted just like pork. So some people — Schmoo-icide squads — got together to shoot all the Schmoos: “If it’s that good for you, it must be bad for you.”
There is a long history of local governments providing these services. Municipalities have long provided our sewer systems, our water systems — and they’ve generally done it very well. People have preyed on this idea, saying that you can’t let governments do this because they’ll mess it up. But if you’re a company, wouldn’t you rather keep a bad competitor?
Then they come in with the next argument: They’re subsidizing it with tax dollars, and we need a level playing field. That’s nice if you’re the company getting the subsidies. Is this really going to help poor people? Many people benefit from municipal networks. I liken it to the New York subway system.
On the strategy of the legislation, these guys learn. In Pennsylvania, they learned that even if we’re government-get-off-my-back red state people, we still don’t like asking large incumbent corporations to give us permission to have municipal networks. So they use some key tricks, like the public referendum trick.
Snider: What should the business model be?
Feld: One of the things put into these bills is that the system must pay for itself. And they use a complicated cost-benefit analysis so the system is born in debt. That is a horrible model.
Robinson: What we’re looking at is a public-private partnership. We needed to approach it from the viewpoint of it being cost neutral to the city. The network will be self-sustaining. We plan a big announcement for Tuesday.
Scott: In the states in which they’re fighting for it, it’s important to make that case. A wireless network could be operated as a cooperative. A wireless network could be operated as a public library. Do we ask librarians to sell books? Do we need to ask Borders before we build a new library?
Feld: In a lot of these cases, there’s already an existing infrastructure. The city has already spent money on a fiber ring to read electric meters or something. You have a huge excess that could be given away at cost. That’s a huge threat. Were you going to build it anyway? The great highway acts of the 1950s were done under the argument that we needed them for national defense. We didn’t charge truck drivers for using our defense network.