Municipal wifi under attack, but still innovating

Municipal wifi networks in states across the nation are under attack as they try to move forward. A new bill in Minnesota would limit the ability of cities in the state to move forward on their own broadband networks. A Georgia bill with similar restrictions, however, has been shelved despite support from Republicans in the state senate. There are some bright spots however, a new initiative in San Jose, California may be changing how municipal wifi is managed.

CivSource has been following a bill championed by Republican Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, that would seek to limit municipalities in rural Georgia from creating their own municipal wifi networks, despite open admissions from AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson that they have no intention to continue building in those areas. On a conference call discussing the company’s earnings, Stephenson said “We’ve all been trying to find a broadband solution that was economically viable to get out to rural America, and we’re not finding one to be quite candid. The best opportunity we have is LTE.”

According to sources familiar with the bill, that bill will now be altered to become a study bill which will gather further information on broadband network access in the state.

Similar bills are still on the move in Minnesota and South Carolina. Following a playbook initially established by incumbent telecom providers in North Carolina. The Minnesota bill explicitly bans communities from creating their own networks to meet their needs. A surprising move, considering the state is already pushing forward on a large broadband expansion.

In South Carolina, the story is roughly the same. Although no movement is happening on the bill right now, the language suggests that telecom providers are seeking to keep municipalities from creating their own networks even when private providers have indicated that they will not bring services to the area.

Private providers are arguing that municipal networks create unfair competition, forcing them to lower their rates because municipalities have the ability to offer rates below cost. Even if true, we are left to wonder why this is a concern in areas where the providers themselves have said they do not plan to do business. According to a post on Ars Technica yesterday, Charter Communications in Minnesota has done this and apparently so quickly that they put hand written fliers in residents mailboxes. (See the image here.)

There is a new bright spot on the horizon, however, San Jose, California is upgrading an aging and barely used municipal wifi network in order to support municipal infrastructure services. However, the city has no plans to become a wireless provider for residents. Instead, users who happen to be near the network will be able to use it.

The city is building the network through an already existing private fiber network in its downtown district, where carriers cross-connect. The initiaive will expand the network from 1Gbps to 20Gbps.

The economic benefits of large broadband networks throughout states have been well illustrated. However, incumbent providers seem to feel that short term cost outlays will have a greater impact on their bottom line than adding new subscribers.