In Cities, Internet Unplugged

Technology that allows access to the Web without the hard wire of a telephone line or cable connection is the "next big thing" for many Internet users. Indeed, new wireless local area networks (WLANs) now exist community-wide in Grand Haven, Mich. and Hermosa Beach, Calif. - just two of a growing number of cities offering such service.

Because these publicly run wireless networks rely on less expensive technology, they provide cheaper Internet access than the current market. Instead of paying $40 to $50 a month for high-speed Internet access through a cable or a phone line, Grand Haven residents, for instance, pay just $20 a month - and the city gets to take 5 percent of that to help fund public services.

Such citywide access extends to poorer areas, too, and can help close the digital divide. And many city leaders hope WLANs will create better communication among staff, especially emergency workers.

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In bypassing private Internet providers, however, such cities are up against powerful telecommunications companies that have lobbied hard to stop these WLANs. Verizon, for instance, won a legislative battle in Pennsylvania last week when Gov. Ed Rendell signed a bill (which Verizon lobbyists helped draft) that allows Philadelphia to go ahead with a WLAN but prevents all other municipalities in the state from doing so.

Large telecommunications companies contribute to both Democratic and Republican campaigns nationwide - roughly $7.5 million so far in 2004. In the case of WLANs, elected leaders must show more gumption against these established interests.

Competition for Internet users must remain healthy. Big telecommunications companies can't be allowed to undercut the competition simply through political clout.

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