Access: Earthlink and its ilk back out of the deal

The Times reports that the goal of city-sponsored free or low-cost universal internet access has turned out to be a pipe dream (Hopes for Wireless Cities Fade as Internet Providers Pull Out by Ian Urbina, NYTimes 2008-03-22).

Cities and towns from Philadelphia to San Francisco promised they would make access available to everyone. "But the excited momentum has sputtered to a standstill," the Times finds, "tripped up by unrealistic ambitions and technological glitches. The conclusion that such ventures would not be profitable led to sudden withdrawals by service providers like EarthLink, the Internet company that had effectively cornered the market on the efforts by the larger cities. Now, community organizations worry about their prospects for helping poor neighborhoods get online."

But wasn't this entire effort premised on the idea of the free lunch? Politicians may have salivated at the prospect of a popular and necessary municipal service that could be provided without having to attend to the tedious matter of raising revenues to pay for it, but the viability of a system that depended on advertising or low-cost fees was never more than dubious. The only sensible way to provide universal internet access is through a public utility or a publicly facilitated cooperative, as is done in cities in Europe and Asia (in one of those twists you can't make up, USAID money -- your money -- is being used to provide universal access in other places).

I've posted about the topic of universal internet access over the years because the city where I live, a geometrically compact, wealthy, technologically sophisticated, politically progressive, college town, seemed uniquely positioned to provide free universal access, but, though there are a handful of municipal hotspots around town, it hasn't happened here, either; and if it can't happen here, it's hard to imagine where it can happen.

As we wake up to the reality that for-profit companies are not going to pay for universal access, supporters of internet access as a utility will need to redouble their efforts to prod American city and county governments to step in. Otherwise, the internet will just be one more area where we can't keep up with the rest of the industrialized world.

It is distressing to see us tumble again into the gap between what public services cost and what we're willing to pay for them. Every election cycle for three decades, we have fallen for the candidates who offered us what could be called representation without taxation, as if somehow we can have schools and libraries and roads and bridges and parks and fire departments and police protection and sewer systems and clean air and drinkable water flowing from the tap and all our other needs and expectation met without paying for them.

Sascha Meinrath, technology analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, told the Times,
true municipal networks, the ones owned and operated by municipalities, are far more sustainable because they can take into account benefits that help cities beyond private profit, including property-value increases, education benefits and quality-of-life improvements that come with offering residents free wireless access.

Mr. Meinrath pointed to St. Cloud, Fla., which spent $3 million two years ago to build a free wireless network that is used by more than 70 percent of the households in the city.
So, the fight goes on, in this area as in so many others. Will John McCain, Hillary Clinton and/or Barack Obama sign on to a program that will address the ways we have fallen behind our friends and enemies in the industrialized world and, more revealingly, offer realistic ways to fund it? Or will we be forced to look outside business-as-usual for new leaders and new models of enlightened governance? Because we sure can't continue to let failed leadership turn us into a third-rate country.

The rest of the story: The New york Times.

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