Municipal WiFi: It Started on the Farm


July 1, 2005


Browse in Commons

My mother’s second husband grew up on a farm in West Texas. He was libertine but not liberal. He railed about the men in town — a summer resort — who spent the winter on unemployment, and he thought criminals had it coming, the worse the better.. He also revered FDR. (Liberals today who don’t grasp the connection are showing why they are the minority party.)

Partly it was the farm programs that rescued many from the depths. But mainly it was public power. In Texas, as in most of the country, private utilities had bypassed rural areas because they weren’t worth serving, in the utilities’ view at least.. Too much cost, not enough potential yield. Yet these utilities guarded jealously their monopolies, and resisted efforts of legislators to serve those in need.

Finally, FDR pushed through the Rural Electrification Act. Utility poles went up along dirt roads. Wires went from the utility poles to farm houses. One momentous day, light bulbs went on in farm kitchens, and refrigerators began to purr. It was like the Red Sea parting. My stepfather’s evocation of the taste of cold milk in the brutal West Texas heat is something I never will forget. (Robert Caro tells the story wonderfully in his biography of Lyndon Johnson.) Texas was Democratic for as long as that memory survived.

Broadband internet is not electricity in terms of impact. But it’s become pretty important. The business of daily life is moving increasingly on-line, and those who aren’t there — whether as students, job-seekers, whatever — will slip out of the game. I’m not saying that the Web is wonderful, only that it’s a fact. People not served by broadband are in something of the position of those who weren’t served by electricity several generations ago.

The comparison is especially fitting in terms of the providers — more precisely non-providers — of these life needs. Broadband companies are bypassing poor families today much the way the private utilities bypassed dirt farms long ago. In Philadelphia only 10%-25% of low income families are connected to the internet at all. Cost is the main reason, surveys say.

This is one reason Philadelphia and other cities are doing what FDR did back in the thirties, and establishing municipal WiFi networks to make sure everyone gets served. These systems also will help local businesses and increase efficiency for local governments. Philadelphia, the leader in this trend, expects to save $2 million a year in leased-line costs and cell phone bills, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Cable companies and telecoms have gone berserk. They have mounted a furious counterattack, and legislatures in thirteen states have caved, and imposed restrictions or outright bans on municipal WiFi. That includes Pennsylvania, though the legislature exempted Philadelphia from the new restrictions because the system was so far along. The main argument is ideology — namely that the cities are trying to socialize a function that ought to be left to private enterprise. The argument is bogus but it points to a useful question: What life functions are best served by the market, and when do things work better when left to the commons in one form or another?

As I have pointed out here before, it would be possible to privatize the sidewalks of a city, and to parcel out portions to respective bidders. This would advance free enterprise, at least where sidewalks are concerned. But it wouldn’t advance it for other entrepreneurs. People would get sick of paying tolls as they moved about the city. Eventually they’d go someplace else. If there was no someplace else — if every city, town and mall followed the same model — then people simply would have less money to spend at the stores that adjoin the sidewalks.

Charge more for the process of getting to the store, and people have less left over to spend at the store. That’s one reason that sidewalk commons are good for enterprises that adjoin the sidewalks. Just so, universal WiFi is good for enterprises that do business via the Web, as opposed to those that make money providing the connections. We can argue over whether Web business really is a good idea when it cuts out local Main Street businesses, the way Wal-Mart does. I myself have big concerns. But the argument that municpal WiFi is in and of itself bad for free enterprise, is totally specious. The issue here is corporate self-interest not high moral principle.

The latest evidence came in a recent story in the Wall Street Journal called “Earthlink Sees Municipal Opportunity.” The story points out that Earthlink is enthused about the municipal WiFi movement because it opens up a big market from which it has been largely foreclosed. Cable and regional telephone companies basically have had a lock on the broadband pipes. The Supreme Court held recently that cable companies don’t have to open up theirs to the likes of Earthlink, which makes the.lock all the tighter. Telephone companies still have a “common carrier” obligation, although that could change.

Municipal WiFi busts open the lock. “We think [the municipal market is] going to going to help us expand our footprint and bring broadband to people that don’t havt it today — and be a win for the cities and the citizens of the cities,” said an executive for Earthlink, which has bid for the $10 million contract to operate the Philadelphia system. Eleven other companies bid as well. If that’s socialism then Haliburton — a big government contractor and the firm Vice President Richard Cheney ran for $30 million a year — must be a socialist entity.

Ideologues pretend that government is the only clog to the market. But as the case of broadband shows, there are market clogs to the market too. In the quest to turn everything into private property, and to extend the market into all time and space, these clogs are increasing apace. The enclosure of university research is creating a patent obstacle course for researchers that is a little like the permit process in New York City.

When FDR extended the wires to my stepfather’s farm kitchens, private enterprise did not suffer. To the contrary, it had a new customer for a light bulb and refrigerator and soon for many other things. Even markets require a world in which some things are not the market. We need water as well as air, night as well as day.