This week's Independent Weekly -- one of the best alternative papers in the country, based here in North Carolina's Triangle -- has a great article by Fiona Morgan looking at the rise of "wired communities" across the country. Morgan starts off with a case study of Carrboro, N.C., a small ex-mill town next to Chapel Hill:
Carrboro offers free public access to the Web in and near the town center, making Weaver Street's inviting green lawn one of the few places in the Triangle where anyone with a Wi-Fi card in her computer can get online.
The town is in the vanguard of a movement to provide Internet access not as a luxury but as a public utility, administering its own free access points with the help of community-minded businesses and residents who contribute equipment and extra bandwidth on their own networks.
"Technology is an infrastructure like any other," says Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson, "and local governments should view it that way. Just as we provide the community with sidewalks, roads, streetlights, we have to think of technology as an infrastructure we provide as well."
No wonder they call Carrboro "the Paris of the Piedmont!" The town joins Atlanta, Philadelphia, Portland, and other cities that view computer access as a basic need in today's wired world. Indeed, free WiFi is a class issue, bridging the still-gaping digital divide. As Morgan notes of Philly's experiment, "serving the economically disadvantaged has been a major goal of the city's plan."
And the technology is only getting better. WiMax, the next generation of wireless technology, can reach 30 miles -- dwarfing today's access radius of 300 feet.
Who could oppose such a wonderful, democratizing force for the public good?
[T]he telecom giants are still fighting Philly. A recent New York Times article quotes Adam Theirer, director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute, saying of muni wireless projects: "This is a growing trend, but an ominous and disturbing one. The last thing I'd want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility." Theirer authored a study just released by the libertarian think tank that criticizes Philadelphia's plan.It's now up to the public to defend this vital public asset from corporate greed.
What the Times piece doesn't mention is that Cato's corporate sponsors include Comcast and Verizon. The public advocacy group Media Channel sent out a statement pointing that out.
BellSouth and Qwest Communications have also successfully pushed for restrictions on municipal broadband service in Louisiana and Utah. Similar campaigns have gone on in Kansas, Ohio, Texas, Indiana and Iowa. Even in North Carolina, the concept of publicly provided Internet access has been challenged in court.