Journalism education and tips for journalists

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

WIFI - Public utility or private commodity

I was talking to one of the students here at the university about blogging as a community media. He had written a posting to his (always interesting) blog about (a)synchronicity . He had noted that as the competition stiffened between broadband providers, the delivery pipes were getting fatter, but only in one direction.
Companies are interested in delivering telephony, cable TV, entertainment etc. but not in distributing information. As he pointed out, the downstream (delivery) rate of an ADSL-line (by far the most common way for consumers to get broadband) can be as high as 28 Mbps while the upstream (distributary) can be as low as 0,8 Mbps.
So what? Well, it means that the much touted journalistic prosumer aspect of the web decreases and the pacification aspect increases. If you are the owner of a broadband delivery company and also the owner of the content that is being delivered, will you help people compete with you? Give them the chance to broadcast their home-made chat shows? Allow community media using broadband-publishing to discuss local issues that might cut into your newspaper sales, or you TV-stations ad revenue?
The proponents of liberalism (in the Swedish context) and capitalism say that the free and fierce competition of the de-regulated marketplace gives the best possible service. Which leads me on to the headline of this post.
I was reading about a bill just passed by Pennsylvania's House and Senate in which there is a provision to kill "Philadelphia Wireless" -- an ambitious plan to build a Wi-Fi network to serve the city's working-class communities - on the grounds that as the state would be subsidizing access it would skew competition and pose a threat to the major player Verizon Communications (whose lobbyists were active in drawing up the wording of the clause). If Verizon win this one it will be seen as a precedent and other projects to bring broadband connectivity to parts of the populace who cant afford the rates charged by (often monopoly) companies will be atacked.
This is the logic used by de-regulators in the EU. All state subventions are intrinsically bad as they skew competition. Hospitals, transport systems, schools, media - all need to be privatized. It gives consumers a choice is a recurring mantra. But time and again we see the same pattern. If you can not afford the service then do without. Need an ambulance? Show me the money! Starving? Forget food-stamp programs - find a charity! [more on faith-based dismantling of the residual welfare state]

But there are compelling reasons to see Wi-fi access as a public utility. In Wired 12.11 we can read of the 311 service in New York. I wont go into detail, you can read the article. However one of the possibilities in a (free) Wi-Fi covered city is the possibility to:

Connect 311's database to a city full of Treos or Wi-Fi laptops, and it's easy to imagine the extended urban organism growing more adaptive: subway riders tapping in up-to-the-minute reports on passenger loads and parents giving high marks to a new hire at a school.
There would be huge gains to cities, in better governance, early warnings systems, democratic participation, adhoc discussions locally, crime prevention and more.
It would cut into private companies profits (I can hear them howl, growl and cry foul as I write) but would increase the quality of life, the good governance and the value of the tax kroner for the majority of the citizenry.


  • Excellent post, as usual. Up until 1982, when the FCC broke up the Bell system, we had one of the most effectively regulated monopolies in the world, which created an efficient, reliable, and just national telephone network.

    What free-market de-regulators always miss is the importance of regulation and state-intervention into under-servered markets. AT&T presided over a remarkable increase in the number of households with telephone access, (50 percent in 1945, seventy percent in 1955, and ninety percent in 1969.) Could a deregulated environment create that today? No, and that is precisely what Philadelphia is arguing.

    Unfortunately, in America we are moving further and further away from any notion of "public." It is Bush's signature initiative now; you can hear it in the rhetoric of the "ownership society."

    Would the internet have been created without the public-supported research into computing and networks by the Defense Department and universities in the 1950's-1970's? No. There was no market for it, and less even was there the potential in the private sector of invest in R&D. Free marketeers always miss the necessity of market corrections and long-term investments in public goods like health and telecommunications.

    Our "ownership" society will destroy the commons and impoverish the owners.

    By Blogger dkreiss, at 7:56 PM  

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