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No Change on the Verizon

A landmark program to provide low- or no-cost wireless to working class areas of Philadelphia is in jeopardy as Verizon has words with the governor; and if it can't make it there, it probably can't make it anywhere.
 
 
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Banish the notion that America's communications industry nurtures technological innovation to help make media more accessible to average Americans.

The reality today is that we live in an era where large corporations work hand-in-hand with lobbyists and compliant legislators to stifle any technology that returns control of our media system to the public.

The latest evidence lies hidden within a Bill en route to the desk of Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. House Bill 30 – an industry-drafted and inspired sprawl of corporate concessions – has tucked within its more than 70 pages an amendment that effectively kills efforts in Philadelphia to provide citywide wireless access at little or no charge.

The bill cleared both Pennsylvania's House and Senate on Friday. A signature from Governor Rendell would scuttle "Philadelphia Wireless" – an ambitious plan to build a Wi-Fi network to serve the city's working-class communities – before the project could begin.

The problem, according to the Bill's principal sponsor, Verizon Communications, Inc., is that community-supported wireless poses a "significant threat" to the multi-billion dollar company's near monopoly hold on wireless access across the city. Why allow for local competition and innovation in Philadelphia when you can shut it down via well-funded connections in the capitol?

Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street's spokeswoman Barbara Grant told MediaChannel that the bill was "terrible for cities around the country, because if the telecommunications companies can stop it here in Pennsylvania, they'll probably be able to stop it anywhere."

That spells a perilous fate for the many small-scale community wireless networks that have sprung up in neighborhoods and municipalities from Champaign-Urbana and Bangor, to Austin and Seattle. Verizon, along with other massive telecoms, will not stop at the Pennsylvania State House. Every community that is fostering plans to subsidize local wireless will likely face staunch and heavily financed opposition from the handful of massive telecoms that aim to control how Americans log on and through whom.

The industry pulls considerable weight in Washington – spending more than $160 million since 1999 on efforts to woo legislators and win support for policies that effectively hand over publicly owned media assets, such as our airwaves, to private control. Industry lobbyists have also spread out across the country to uproot local competition and defend big media interests town to town.

The net result is a law making system at every level of government that cannot be trusted to do the public's bidding when it comes to media policy.

The legislation before Governor Rendell is but a single front in the industry's national campaign to write Internet access monopolies into law before communities can implement affordable, public access wireless systems. According to media rights group Free Press, similar legislation designed to stifle community initiatives around this emerging technology have been introduced in nearly a dozen states nationwide, including Arkansas, Florida, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

Governor Rendell's decision on House Bill 30 may turn on the success of several public policy and media reform groups, including Common Cause Pennsylvania, Prometheus Radio Project, Media Tank and Penn PIRG, that have mobilized statewide grassroots efforts to encourage a veto.

With the continued hard work of local groups like these, citizens have the potential to win back their media community by community.

But they face daunting odds. Alongside Verizon, sits Comcast Corporation, Philadelphia's second largest private employer and the leading local provider of cable Internet access. The company has an equal distaste for a citywide public broadband network, according to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Governor Rendell is long a Comcast ally, which has huge political clout in Pennsylvania," Chester said. Comcast's executive vice president David Cohen was the Governor's chief of staff when Rendell was Mayor of Philadelphia.

Stay tuned.

Timothy Karr is executive director of MediaChannel and Director of Media For Democracy, MediaChannel's 2004 citizens' initiative to monitor media coverage of the presidential elections.