Chicago tries to sneak Wi-Fi network past Illinois

Telco lobbyists run to Springfield

City versus state squabbles over Wi-Fi networks have reached the hilarity zone here in the US, as officials on both sides try to slip networking laws past each other.

Chicago Alderman Edward Burke has gone into bureaucratic overdrive, hoping to craft legislation that will guarantee the city's right to run its own Wi-Fi service. Speed is key in this situation because the Illinois General Assembly will soon consider a ban on city-funded broadband networks. Chicago officials see a citywide wireless network as a potential revenue source, a way to bridge the digital divide and a means of attracting tourists. State officials, meanwhile, appear intent on making sure service providers can control wireless networks.

The most publicized city/state Wi-Fi spat took place last year in Philadelphia. City officials revealed plans for an ambitious wireless network that would be free for all residents and available at a low cost to tourists. Once word of the network hit the papers, the telco and service provider lobby swung into action. The lobbyists convinced state officials to push through legislation making it impossible for cities to set up networks unless the vendors turn down the projects first.

Funny enough, Philly can go forward with its plan, thanks to the kind people at Verizon. Other cities in Pennsylvania, however, must bend to the telcos' will.

This kind of fighting can't be good news for consumers, who have already waited years for decent, cheap broadband services. And if you think Philadelphia and Chicago are exceptions, you're wrong. Have a look at Houston or what's going on in 14 other states said to have enacted similar municipal wireless-blocking legislation. (That is if you believe pod person Larry Lessig.)

Chicago, like many other cities, sees Wi-Fi as a type of public service. A whopping 78 libraries pump out free wireless. Officials want to complement this service with 7,500 wireless antennas placed atop light poles. An official told local papers such as a service would cost about $18.5m to roll out. The city could make up the costs by charging a small fee to locals and a higher fee to tourists. Chicago could also divvy up revenue with Starbucks, Hiltons and the like.

Telcos and coffee shops would obviously like to control the flow of information and payments for broadband networks. But is such intense lobbying against this type of public service necessary? Many consumers and most business will still pay for their own service, hoping to guarantee privacy, security and performance. There should be plenty of room for the city to provide Wi-Fi as a public good. This is the Information Age, after all. ®

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