Imagine if Borders and Barnes & Noble, claiming it was killing their book sales, asked lawmakers to ban cities from building libraries. The legislators would laugh them out of the State House. Yet the same thing is happening right now with respect to Wi-Fi and other municipal broadband plans, and it is being taken all too seriously. In fact, although it is almost universally acknowledged that broadband access is essential to economic growth and education, phone and cable companies are lobbying furiously to prohibit municipalities from providing free or discounted broadband to their residents.
Chattanooga Pairs Wireless with Wired
Chattanooga, with the nation's most impressive broadband network (stretching into rural areas even outside the metro), is spending $30 million to put a Wi-Fi wireless network on top of it. At present, it is primarily for municipal uses:
For now, city government plans to retain exclusive use of the network for municipal agencies as it tests it with applications including Navy SEAL-esque head-mounted cameras that feed live video to police headquarters, traffic lights that can be automatically adjusted at rush hour, and even water contamination sensors that call home if there’s a problem beneath the surface of the Tennessee River.
Much of the wireless network is being funded by state and federal grants -- Chattanooga is turning itself into a test bed for the future city, at least for communities that recognize the benefits of owning their own infrastructure. Chattanooga can do what it wants to, it does not have to ask permission from Comcast or AT&T.
The goal for the city’s wireless network is to make the entire city more efficient and sustainable, said David Crockett, director of Chattanooga’s Office of Sustainability.
As Bernie Arnason notes at Telecompetitor, Wi-Fi is increasingly needed by smartphones because the big cellular networks cannot handle the load. The future has wireless components, but without Wi-Fi backhauled by fiber-optics, the future will be extremely slow and unreliable -- traffic jams for smartphones.
A more recent story from the Times Free Press notes that Chattanooga is wrestling with how to handle opening the network to residential and business use.
“I want to be innovative,” he said. “I want to do more than just turn it on in the parks.”
It’s a popular idea with technologists, tourism officials and the general public, who would gain the ability to surf around the city at speeds greater than typical cellular speeds.
Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said allowing tourists to log onto the Internet via Wi-Fi “would be tremendous.
Unfortuately, state laws designed to "protect" some of the most powerful corporations in America, AT&T and Comcast, have limited the utility's options when it comes to offering services to the public.
The reason it’s a legal gray area, according to Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson, is due to a legally “defined service area” that grants companies such as AT&T, Comcast and EPB specific regions and defines the capabilities they can offer.
Comcast and AT&T have proved incredibly powerful in the Tennessee Legislature, preventing any efforts to encourage more competition among broadband providers in the state by loosening restrictions on public entities to invest in their own networks. In the courts, where they have to argue on a level playing field with opponents (checking their unrivaled lobbying clout at the door), they have done much worse -- losing lawsuit after lawsuit intended to disrupt publicly owned networks.
All of us who want access to better broadband networks have to make sure our elected officials are voting for community needs, rather than for increased profits for Comcast and AT&T.
For those who want to learn more about the history of Chattanooga's incredible network, a good start is this interview with Craig Settles on Gigabit Nation.
With this wireless overlay, Chattanooga could have an incredible connected future - where anyone can get a great connection to the Internet anywhere in the city from a network that is designed top-to-bottom with the idea of maxmizing benefits to all -- businesses and residents alike.