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Should you have a right to broadband?

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says a movement to enshrine your access to a broadband connection is fast gaining momentum.

Silicon Valley's favorite parlor game is to try to predict the next big thing. I don't want to spoil the fun, but tomorrow's transforming technology event is not going to be a new piece of software code or a smaller, faster mobile-computing device. Think the video iPod will revolutionize the world? Think again. If you don't have a good broadband connection to download content, you're just looking at an overpriced paperweight. Google Earth may be fascinating, but you still need access to the Internet to view its pretty pictures.

You get the point. But it's more than just the Internet. The big change on the horizon is the move to enshrine access to a broadband connection as a basic right of citizenship. The slogan is being picked up here and abroad by a collection of interest groups and policymakers who view broadband as just too important to leave anymore to the vagaries of the private sector.

"We won't stop until every San Franciscan has broadband access," says Chris Vein, the senior technology advisor to San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom. It's not only rhetoric. His boss is one of the nation's most visible proponents of so-called muni Wi-Fi. Because he runs San Francisco, Newsom probably gets more than his fair share of ink. Some think that he also harbors ambitions to one day run for U.S. president--and nothing would look better on his resume than a line about how the city extended affordable broadband access to all its residents.

But Newsom is only picking up on a theme increasingly sounded by politicians elsewhere. The city of Philadelphia has also announced a high-profile plan to provide Internet access to its citizens. From its point of view, broadband is a necessity, not a luxury. With the United States' ranking for broadband penetration plummeting from third place to 16th in just four years, this is more than an academic concern. The fear is this will translate into massive job losses to other nations.

So far, the telephone companies are watching how all this plays out, quietly rooting for the municipalities to screw things up. After Philadelphia chose EarthLink to build that city's Wi-Fi network, a Comcast spokesman sniffed that City Hall was in over its head. Government's role should be that of disinterested arbiter and not that of Wi-Fi midwife, he said.

Government's role should be that of disinterested arbiter and not that of Wi-Fi midwife.

But they may be too late to stem this tide. Google has proposed to blanket San Francisco with free wireless high-speed Internet access, perhaps a harbinger of the company's plans to build a nationwide network. Even before Google threw its hat into the ring, change was already in the air, after Hurricane Katrina happened.

As if we needed reminding, the resulting chaos underscored the glaring inadequacies that hampered communications. That added pressure to do something about the nation's Internet infrastructure--now. At a recent industry conference I attended, bringing together representatives from private industry and cities around the nation, that message came through loud and clear. There was no missing the fact that this was a matter of when, not if.

Ultimately, the question boils down to whether you believe that broadband is so important that it should get treated like a public utility, in the much the same way as water or power. There's no consensus about that, and it's doubtful that the issue will be put on the national agenda before the next presidential election.

Can the localities take the lead? In this country, there's nothing to rival the Associazione Nazionale Piccoli Comuni d'Italia, an Italian association of small towns that has adopted a plan to promote the adoption of Wi-Fi and wireless technology. That's helped even isolated burgs--like the village of Chamois, deep in the Italian Alps--offer wireless access to its residents.

"One thing I've learned is that no one model works everywhere," Paul Butcher of Intel says. "One community might treat it as a basic right. Another might say market dynamics should determine what they will deploy. There's no one piece of legislation that can anticipate the numerous needs out there."

Translation: Prepare yourself for a lot of sturm und drang before this issue gets sorted out. But sorted out it will be. The political momentum is only going to gain strength in the months ahead.