Life is about “repeating the same mistakes” in different contexts, says Larry Lessig. In the current issue of Wired, the Stanford law professor compares the prevailing wisdom in the 1990s that Microsoft’s operating system would chill competitive innovation in the software industry with the current popular wisdom that we need net neutrality regulation to prevent broadband providers from blocking any use of the Internet which threatens their bottom line. Regulatory enthusiasts didn’t in the 1990s foresee the success of Linux, according to Lessig, and they may not appreciate the significance of municipal networks.
According to MuniWireless.com, there were 312 cities and counties in the U.S. with networks up and running, or in the deployment or planning phase at the end of 2006. The number of cities and counties issuing RFPs and deploying networks has tripled since July, 2005.
Lessig is skeptical municipal networks will check the power of broadband providers, but concedes they must have potential or else broadband providers wouldn’t oppose them. To be fair, most broadband providers oppose the possibility that local officials will subsidize municipal networks directly or indirectly. The proliferation of municipal networks demonstrates there’s a thriving broadband alternative which consumers could use to bypass any telephone, cable or wireless company which discriminates against particular Internet applications or services. Yeah, Wi-Fi may not be available everywhere. But that’s the wrong yardstick to measure whether the broadband market is so concentrated as to require net neutrality regulation. Analysts at the big broadband providers and in the investment community look both at where municipal broadband already exists today and where there could be sufficient demand for it to exist tomorrow. If broadband providers turn their networks into walled gardens, there will be lots of demand everywhere. Broadband providers won’t do that. They won’t give municipal Wi-Fi an enormous competitive advantage.