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Limits On Wireless Leave U.S. At Risk


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October 16, 2005

By Reed Hundt

For the past two years, everyone in Washington has agreed that the country needs a new telecommunications law. But no one has been able to provide a reason in terms that any voter could grasp. One of the many outcomes of the Katrina and Rita catastrophes is that we all know, tragically and inescapably, that America needs a new, up-to-date communications network. If a law will give us that, then Congress should pass that law. In a hurry.

We can start by identifying some things not to do. For example, Louisiana and Florida adopted legislation in recent years intended to slow the deployment of municipal wireless broadband communications networks. These states are not alone; a dozen other legislatures have tried to slow the deployment of municipal broadband.

In theory, the legislation has helped traditional suppliers of fixed telecommunications services serve existing and potential customers without competition from local governments. But this public-policy choice has hurt and will continue to impede first-responder access to communications by making it difficult or impossible for cities to deploy on-the-spot wireless broadband communication systems.

In the wake of Katrina and Rita, ``new'' telecommunications options, such as wireless broadband, were among the fastest to reconnect first responders and citizens in the affected regions. These new competitors are using the latest technologies, such as voice over Internet protocol phones, mesh networking, and WiFi and WiMax technologies that operate on unlicensed spectrum. In fact, WiFi mesh technology has demonstrated yet again that it is one of the most robust communications systems -- one that will stay up the longest when a catastrophic event occurs and can be back up first to aid in the rescue effort.

In New Orleans, for example, wireless ISP Verge Wireless has connected refugees in shelters throughout the city, in conjunction with MCI using WiMax and WiFi mesh networking gear operating in unlicensed spectrum. In addition to Web access, this network also supports voice-over-WiFi phones and will soon support video surveillance of the city, enabling first responders to handle more crucial tasks. In fact, a Vonage phone connected to the Internet in a hotel in New Orleans was the first and only way for the mayor and his response team to communicate with the world for two days.

Repeatedly in Congress and in legislatures, we have heard that municipalities have no business being in the telecommunications business. (Local community leaders heard much the same thing when they sought to provide this newfangled thing called ``electricity'' to under-served and rural areas a century ago.)

Before the Katrina and Rita disasters, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, introduced HR 2627, to ``prohibit municipal governments from offering telecommunications, information, or cable services, except to remedy market failures by private enterprise to provide such services.'' In Texas, a state representative has introduced HB 789, which, like bills in other states, seeks to severely limit municipalities or municipally owned utilities from participating in municipal broadband projects.

As is the case in life, having a broad range of approaches and options is usually the best way forward.

This means enacting laws that encourage municipalities and new entrants to quickly build competing broadband infrastructure, such as the Community Broadband Act, proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

Congress should grant $1 billion in federal matching grants to any municipality that will pay 50 percent of the cost of such a local wireless broadband network. Local government should let competitive contracts and build city-by-city, county-by-county, coast-to-coast WiFi network.

Officials ought to reallocate a spectrum, probably in the 700 megahertz band, for a national wireless network reserved for first responders. The local WiFi networks can be used by anyone with a laptop. The first-responder network would be available only for authorized emergency services. But for the first time all -- the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, local police departments, local firefighters and so on -- would be on the same network. They could use similar equipment. They could communicate with each other, saving lives and taking fewer risks to do so. The Federal Communications Commission should reallocate the spectrum. Congress should appropriate the money.

Finally, Congress should ask the FCC to coordinate the repair and relief efforts of the big commercial wireless, wire, cable, broadcast and satellite networks. The able new chairman of the FCC has led a bipartisan commission with energy and focus in assessing what went wrong and what can be done better to repair downed networks. Congress should give the FCC chairman the tools he needs to make sure that we all learn the hard lesson of Katrina and Rita.




 
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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See www.vonage.com/911 for details.

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