City Wi-Fi networks get Senate panel nod, again

But will the proposal banning restrictions on public-sector broadband offerings pass Congress this time around, or will it die out, as it did last year?

Cities and local governments would be free to build their own broadband networks under a bill approved once again this week by a U.S. Senate panel.

Yes, that's right--not all of them enjoy that freedom right now. The Community Broadband Act, which was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee and counts both Democrats and Republicans as sponsors, is largely a response to the enactment of several state-level laws that limit the ability of municipalities to compete with private broadband providers. (Not surprisingly, it's phone and cable companies that have fought for those laws.)

The bill, which first emerged in 2005, says state and local lawmakers can't prohibit governments from offering Internet service. The governments are, however, encouraged to seek "public-private partnerships." And if they intend to make Internet offerings, they must first seek public comment on the costs and benefits, potential alternatives and other factors central to the process.

The action comes amid a mixed track record for city-sponsored Wi-Fi networks. Some locales, such as San Francisco, are still struggling to get their networks up and running , but others, like Minneapolis and Philadelphia, are reporting early signs of success.

Local officials, consumer advocacy groups, public utility companies, and the Internet service provider Earthlink, which has inked municipal broadband partnerships with numerous major U.S. cities, support the Senate bill. They argue it'll help the United States meet the goal of "universal broadband" and help ensure low-income residents have affordable access. Some free-market-leaning politicians, who question the effectiveness of governments offering services already provided by the private sector, have said it's not clear the legislation is necessary.

Whether the proposal will actually become law this year is another story.

The House of Representatives has yet to act this year on its own version of the measure, and a Democratic aide to the relevant committee said nothing is on the agenda yet. The same Senate committee threw its support behind a similar proposal last year, but it never went anywhere because it was wrapped up in a mammoth communications bill that died out because of disagreements over Net neutrality regulations.

 

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