Uncrossing The Wires

There is a chance Hurricane Katrina will provide an opportunity to reframe one of America’s most important long-range public policy issues. The opening came on Nov. 29, 2005, when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced that, as part of its economic recovery strategy, the city would create a wireless network offering free broadband Internet access to residents and businesses.

After two months of public rhetoric about “thinking outside the box” and using Katrina as an opportunity to build a better New Orleans, here at last was a genuinely innovative and practical proposal. You’d think the mayor would be showered with praise, and he was in some quarters. But the friendly folks at BellSouth, who, in the old New Orleans, had offered limited broadband access for $60 per month, were less than pleased. According to The Washington Post, within hours of Nagin’s announcement BellSouth had withdrawn its offer to donate one of its unused buildings to serve as a headquarters for the New Orleans police department, which is still operating from improvised offices scattered around the city.

For anyone who has followed the long-brewing storm over the future of broadband Internet access in America, BellSouth’s reaction came as no surprise. In several municipalities around the country, governments have sought to implement broadband as a public utility only to be met by howls of protest and legal obstruction from the big phone companies and cable providers. The telecom giants view public ownership as unnatural interference with the free market. Never mind that the Internet was created with federal tax dollars. Governments have no place on it now that it’s a cash cow. “There ought to be a law,” the telecom executives said. And, in 14 states, their lobbyists have managed to ban municipally owned broadband systems.

Greg Meffert, the chief technology officer for New Orleans, said of his city’s plan, “It’s a once-in-a-century opportunity to truly show the entire world what can be, instead of just what is, and help write future history in the process. It’s a damn shame they [BellSouth] don’t see that.”

Before New Orleans, the biggest battle over municipal broadband had come in Philadelphia, where city officials saw a wireless network as a way to attract high-tech industries and digitally enfranchise the urban poor. Under the Philly plan, broadband would cost $20 per household per month. Verizon, the company currently providing the service at more than double that rate, hired lobbyists to push a bill through the Pennsylvania legislature to block Philadelphia’s municipal system, or any others that might come along in the future. In the end, after a protracted struggle, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Ed Rendell, brokered a deal that will allow the Philadelphia plan to go through, but retain the ban in the rest of the state.

This seemingly arcane technical issue has staggering implications for the future of American democracy. We are rapidly moving toward a world in which access to news and political debate, cultural expression, and economic opportunity will come through a Web-based system that integrates the current functions of Internet, voice telephone, and cable or satellite TV. Today access to that system is available to those who can afford it, and who live in the right places. If democracy is to be more than a hollow slogan, such access must be available and affordable to all.

America has faced this question before, and in the past we’ve always decided in favor of the common good. If the laws of the market had operated without interference, rural America would still be without electricity or phone service. It’s never been profitable to run wires from house to house in the countryside. But when electricity, and then phone service, became necessary for participation in community life, the American people, acting through their federal government, instituted rural electrification projects and imposed a tax on phone service to subsidize universal access.

It’s time for a digital New Deal. Let New Orleans lead the way.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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