Broadband for the People: 1

David Houston
A municipal commission in Seattle issued a report on April 24 urging the City Council to immediately begin construction on a taxpayer-funded broadband Internet service network.

"Seattle cannot afford to dawdle," task force chairman Steven Clifford wrote. "Broadband networks will soon become what roads, electric systems and telephone networks are today: core infrastructure of society."

Clifford, a former chief executive of King Broadcasting Co., was echoing what administrators in cities and townships across the nation have been saying for several years: The United States has fallen far behind Europe and Asia in providing online service.

"Broadband in the digital age is no longer a luxury for those who can afford it. It's a necessity for us all to compete in the global economy," Kenneth DeGraff, a technology policy analyst with Consumers Union, said.

While no one disputes that the nation is lagging in online infrastructure, the idea of the government providing broadband as a public utility draws heated dissension. Cable and telephone companies, fearful of the competition but reluctant to spend the money to provide the service themselves, already are mounting a vigorous effort to block local governments from getting into the competitive online business.

There is much debate about which of the ever-changing broadband systems cities should invest in if they do decide to get involved. And some technology experts say they believe municipal involvement would only serve to stifle online innovation and open the door to censorship.

Lazy Public Utility?
"The last thing I'd want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility," Adam Thierer, of the Washington, D.C., think tank Progress & Freedom Foundation, told the New York Times. Thierer, whose libertarian-bent group studies technology issues, has authored a book that criticizes a plan by Mayor John F. Street to blanket Philadelphia with a citywide, low-cost broadband system.

But cities and rural townships say they are only trying to fill in gaps of under-served areas that the traditional ISPs have ignored. Philadelphia says it will spend $10 million to build a 135-square-mile wireless fidelity, or Wi-Fi, system that will provide service for less than $25 a month to low-income households.

While Philadelphia and Seattle have gotten a lot of attention, it is spits in the road such as St. Francis, Kan., Scottsburg, Ind., Glendwood Springs, Colo., and Thomasville, Ga., leading the charge to provide Internet service to citizens ignored by traditional providers.

"It's disingenuous for telephone and cable companies to say they won't deploy broadband into certain, under-served areas, and then refuse to allow those communities to serve themselves," DeGraff said.

Civil liberties groups, fearful of being seen as trying to prevent the poor and under served from getting good Internet service, and unsure how the nascent effort will shake out, have yet to raise the specter of online censorship with public broadband entities.

"I'm hoping this is not a coming trend because we don't need any more fights," said Rick Weingarten, head of the American Library Association's office for technology policy.

The library association has led the battle against federal and local government attempts to censor Internet content, notably a federal mandate that would have prevented public library computers from offering adult fare.

"I do wonder in the federal telecom legislation that is moving around Congress if the interest in exacting content control in cable and satellite won't move into the Internet," Weingarten said.

But he added, "I think if municipal organizations tried to censor content there would be a terrific First Amendment battle. "The courts have been pretty protective of the Internet," he said.

Technology experts warn that allowing the government to provide online services could lead to content censorship.

"Clearly if you have your broadband service provided by what is essentially a political entity, you run the risk that your content will be susceptible to political pressures," Tom Lenard, another analyst at the Progress & Freedom Foundation who opposes public broadband, said.

In part two we'll examine the use of 'push polls' to influence legislators and the dangers of content regulation.