In what may be another watershed moment in the redefinition of municipal broadband, the wireless industry’s major trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), has backed off active opposition of government wireless projects. It could be because there is less and less municipal in municipal wireless. Even as more cities contemplate wide area wireless coverage, they are more reticent to fund it, turning instead to franchise-like agreements with major players with whom they once thought they could compete. Hence, we see companies like EarthLink reorganizing their entire business strategies around a burgeoning market for municipal outsourcing, and Cingular Wireless, the country’s largest wireless service provider, buzzing around San Francisco’s TechConnect project. Meanwhile, CTIA has other pressing issues Ã¢â?¬â?? including streamlining diverse state regulations, which micromanage carrier operations to the point of specifying fonts they must on their bills. CTIA also has an interest in furthering franchise fee reform. Anyhow, from a competitive standpoint, the industry has technological leg up on anything municipalities can attempt. Verizon Wireless is offering video. Sprint Nextel is close to marketing a handset that can automatically switch between WiFi and cellular systems. Municipal broadband is rapidly becoming a matter of semantics. Although there has been a lot more interest in the concept, since Philadelphia announced its deal with EarthLink last fall, every major project put forth since has explicitly called for no direct city funding. Some, like Milwaukee’s call for non-exclusive access to city right of way. The only exception might be New Orleans, where Mayor Ray Nagin called for upgrade and expansion of an existing city-owned low-speed wireless system. That project, like many others in the post-Katrina Crescent City, faces formidable hurdles. The current focus on wireless also eclipses another fact: ever since Lafayette, La., voted to fund its own municipal fiber to the home system in July, there has been no municipal FTTH systems proposed anywhere. Portland, Ore., has come the closest, floating a $470 million plan for a citywide fiber optic backbone that would support retailer service providers, but from the news coverage, even city officials aren’t gung-ho about funding it and would rather see a private company take on the cost.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.