Two developments this week point to the continuing expansion of “non-municipal municipal wireless” as a preferred alternative to government-owned, taxpayer financed broadband. First is EarthLink’s deal with Motorola and Tropos Networks to integrate and deploy wireless mesh networking equipment in the first five cities where EarthLink will build, own and operate citywide WiFi networks, including Philadelphia and Anaheim, Calif., where the ISP has already won contracts. That the relationship looks ahead to future wins by EarthLink further erodes the contention muni broadband proponents continue to make: that incumbent carriers have an unfair lock on future broadband deployment, that market mechanisms have failed, and that broadband systems are best suited to public utility models. Those who still advocate government ownership should think twice. EarthLink, Motorola and Tropos, working a free market environment driven by private investment, are far closer than any government-owned system to achieving the large-scale, low-cost wireless mesh networking vision they chatter and blog about. Second is Milwaukee’s agreement with Midwest Fiber Systems to allow the Milwaukee-based carrier to use city-owned right-of-way. From a city planning perspective, this decision likewise acknowledges that there are commercial alternatives to the putative “monopoly” incumbents willing to take on the investment necessary to build competitive broadband networks. By offering city right-of-way on a non-exclusive basis, Milwaukee also shows that cities can create incentives and encourage competition without interfering in the market. All private-public broadband partnerships should strive to be as simple and transparent. Even so, groups in San Francisco and Minneapolis continue to press for the expansion of government into local broadband, although from the rhetoric it doesn’t take long to see their agenda is more anti-business than pro-broadband. Fortunately, city planners these days seem to be wiser. Given the eagerness of the industry supply chain to take on investment and risk itself, not to mention the checkered record of municipal broadband networks in general, they are rightly asking why they should spend a single taxpayer dime on these projects.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.