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Broadband boondoggle in the making

Tropos Networks CEO Ronald Sege says a new Pennsylvania law will slow the launch of faster, less expensive wireless broadband.

A national public policy priority--providing broadband access to all Americans--hit a major speed bump late last year when the Pennsylvania legislature decided to slow the rapid deployment of faster, less expensive broadband access.

This law precludes any local Pennsylvania municipality--except Philadelphia, which appears to have obtained an exemption for its initial deployment--from providing telecommunications services to its citizens as it sees fit. The law will also have the effect of reducing competition while slowing the availability of low-cost broadband access.

If a Pennsylvania city or town government wants to initiate broadband, it will now need to ask and then wait for the local telephone company to decide if it wants to provide the service.

The bill came about because new wireless networking technology is today enabling Philadelphia to provide residents and visitors in large downtown areas with low-cost broadband Internet connections. While I am pleased that Philadelphia will be able to continue these efforts, the digital benefits the municipality is pursuing for its citizens will not be available anytime soon throughout the rest of the state.

The United States now ranks 10th in the world in terms of broadband access by its citizens.
Expanding broadband access is critical to job creation and economic growth. The United States now ranks 10th in the world in terms of broadband access by its citizens--and is falling behind. The Bush administration and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell have proclaimed the need to speed broadband deployment to all citizen demographics and across urban, suburban and rural areas.

State and local officials throughout the country have echoed the need to speed up broadband deployment for educational and economic purposes. Ironically, the Pennsylvania law purports to share this goal. Yet it eliminates a potentially fast and easy deployment source for carrier-grade wireless broadband by limiting local government options and setting leisurely time frames for incumbents to meet the stated and demonstrated need for the same.

Municipal broadband wireless technology helps public servants, citizens, community groups and businesses obtain access to wireless broadband quickly, cheaply, anywhere, anytime. What's more, it works regardless of the provider--whether it be a telecom, cable operator, municipal government--or even a police or public safety agency.

Cities like Philadelphia seek to provide real-time video and other communications capabilities at speeds not before seen by its agencies. At the same time, they wish to provide broadband access to citizens, community groups and businesses. But the wording of the Pennsylvania law sidesteps the market and forces local governments to ask the telephone company if it can provide the service. Instead of promoting competition, the law purges it.

When there are more competitors, prices drop, the menu of services expands and more people are able to use the technology sooner. That's why the best interests of our citizens require the fostering of an environment where there are ample incentives and that no alternative be precluded. That's a very different recipe than what's inside the Pennsylvania law.

If we are to ever bring pervasive broadband access to the multitudes, cities should be able to choose the best way to deliver broadband services to their citizens.