The following text is copyright 2004 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.


Unwireing cities


By Scott Bradner


The next phase of municipal networking may be upon us.  Philadelphia may be about to join a handful of other municipalities already offering WiFi Internet connectivity to citizens and travelers.  Any potential health issues aside, this trend bodes well for users but I wonder if the trend will be suddenly stopped in the name of protecting consumers.


Late last month, Philadelphia mayor John F. Street announced the appointment of an executive committee for "Wireless Philadelphia." (  This committee is supposed to work with Philadelphia CIO Dianah Neff to come up with a business plan for providing city-wide WiFi service in Philadelphia.  The service would be free or at a very low cost to the users. 


This would be great for people wandering around Philadelphia, or sitting in a Philadelphia hotel or coffee shop but might present a bit of a challenge to commercial providers of wireless hot-spot service such as T-Mobile. 


Philadelphia is not the first city to think of doing this.  The city of Cleveland Ohio, working with Case Western Reserve University, has already deployed over 1500 wireless access points in the downtown area.  This is only the first stage of the "OneCleveland project which will eventually "connect more than 1500 institutions and organizations and every member of the community to the Internet" according to a description of the project (  Information about many other  similar projects, in the US and elsewhere, can be found on the MuniWireless web site (  The projects vary in scale and cost to the user but have one thing in common; they are municipally-based -- that is government sponsored in some way.


I've written about municipally-sponsored networking in the past (  and I think that such projects may play an important role in providing high-speed Internet connectivity in what I hope will be the future of the Internet and Internet service.  I think it's very important that ISPs not restrict what applications their subscribers can run or what locations they can go to. This is important because it was this type of openness that brought us the explosive growth in Internet applications and uses over the last decade.  But this same openness means that ISPs are providing commodity service and may find it hard to make much money.  Under these conditions an ISP might be tempted to restrict the users to services that the ISP provides and can charge extra for.  This is where municipally-sponsored networks can help - they do not need to make a profit so can keep the pipe open.


Not everyone likes municipal networks, especially those companies, such as the incumbent telephone and cable companies, who try to compete with the municipal networks.  They tend to think itŐs a bit unfair that the municipal networks do not have to pay taxes but instead are sometimes subsidized by the very taxes the incumbents have to pay.  A number of states have sided with those who think it's unfair and have banned such networks.  Last June the US Supreme Court said that there was nothing in US telecommunications law that prevented states from doing this.  (


Even though I think that publicly owned infrastructure might just be the best way to provide future Internet service, maybe with commercial ISPs using that infrastructure to offer their own service, I expect there will be a full court press to get more states to prevent municipalities from doing what is best for their citizens.  I also predict that the pressure will succeed in too many places.


disclaimer:  Sometimes being old can help.  Limits on Massachusetts's authority over Harvard's are written into the state Constitution. (See Article V Section I  But the above lament of governmental power is my own opinion.