AT&T is bringing free wireless to 26 locations in the parks of NYC. It can't have been easy to make this happen – NYC has a particularly enormous and stubborn bureaucracy, and I'm confident the city didn't provide a simple path for AT&T. So congratulations to them; even though it's good marketing, good for the brand, good for the affection in which New Yorkers hold AT&T, it's still also a good thing for the city to have greater free wireless access. (And NYCWireless has done a great job with DUMBO.) Now that I've said something nice, or at least neutral, I'd like to draw your attention to something truly awful. AT&T is working doubletime to convince legislators in Wisconsin that $39 million in federal stimulus money – in the form of competitive grants awarded in Wisconsin – should be returned. (Wisconsin already returned $23 million.) The proposed legislation also prohibits the University of Wisconsin from participating in any arrangements that have anything to do with telecommunications. Why? Isn't Wisconsin one of the least-wired states in America – no. 43 out of 50? Because AT&T doesn't want to see a disruptive public-private open model for high-speed Internet access gain another foothold in the US, that's why. The grant money is for a middle-mile fiber network enabling connections to a hybrid WiMAX/Wi-Fi setup that would connect schools and libraries in four communities that have poor access to telecommunications services. Seventy-four anchor institutions; 182 facilities; 39 communities; all to be connected via an open fiber and WiMAX network built following proven commmunity models. Middle mile, folks, middle mile – something any last mile provider can use. Here's what NTIA says about this grant: "For example, the project would improve communications between healthcare providers and emergency medical services in the Eau Claire and Chippewa metropolitan areas. The network would enable greater file-sharing and imaging capacity for the Luther Midelfort Hospital, a member of the Mayo Health System, along with 15 other healthcare facilities." The project is being built – it started last August, and it's about 20% complete according to the last status report. (There's also a grant for increasing broadband adoption that the legislature is being asked to return, even though the private carriers will probably get all the customers created through this second grant.) This is outrageous. It's of a piece with the incumbents' successful efforts to block municipal networks in North Carolina. The carriers get boatloads of public money – taxpayer money – in the form of subsidies for Universal Service. But somehow it's wrong for any public money to go towards the funding of open fiber public-private networks? If AT&T is successful, Wisconsin will end up paying 2X to 3X more for rural telecommunications services than it would with the cheaper grant-funded middle-mile connections. It is outrageous that the carriers carry so much weight in state legislatures; they have the people on the ground to grind down opposition and push talking points forward, even when those talking points aren't, strictly speaking, true. AT&T is masterful in this area. In at least 18 states in the US, it's now illegal (or at least impossibly difficult) for a community to help itself to broadband. Even though the National Broadband Plan said – just a year ago – that this was a good idea: Recommendation 8.19: Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks. So if AT&T can work its way through the NYC citadels of officialdom, you can bet that it can find its way around Madison, Wisconsin. One result: arguably good. The other: unquestionably bad, shortsighted, anticompetitive, and cave-dwelling. And out of line with federal policy, as expressed in the NBP of last year. Christopher Mitchell further explains things and provides a bunch of links here.
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