The news last week was that Boston’s municipal wireless internet access (“muni wifi”) plan had slowed to a crawl – the city’s “public-private” muni wifi partnership having raised far less than the estimated $15 million it claims it needs to deliver cheap broadband wifi access to Boston’s neighborhoods.

At stake is a much-needed end to the “digital divide” that keeps Boston’s working class communities and communities of color in the information dark ages compared to more wealthy, and predominantly white, communities. But at this point, the digital divide is alive and well in neighborhoods like Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, South Boston, and Hyde Park. And there’s no solution in sight.

This problem is part of a national trend – and part of the failure of national telecommunications agencies like the Federal Communications Commission to fulfill their mandate to protect the public interest.

Over the last few years, cities around the U.S. got easily suckered by a series of ill-fated private sector dominated plans to deliver muni wifi – only to watch them all fall like candlepins as internet corporations like Google and Earthlink realized that they were never going to be able to make the kind of money they’d hoped for from muni wifi and pulled out of projects around the country. These developments took place even as telecoms and cable companies like Verizon and Comcast fought the muni wifi proposals tooth-and-nail as “unfair competition” to their private (vastly overpriced and pathetically slow) internet networks.

Boston tried to outclever such internet industry-led plans (and, not conincidentally, preempt attacks from Verizon and Comcast), by following Cincinnati’s lead, and proposing the creation of a non-profit entity to run its nascent wifi project – although the city’s partnering with various high-tech corporations made it questionable how non-profit the effort would really be out of the gate.

Regardless, the city’s plans quickly hit the aforementioned fundraising wall, and the few pilot tests of its system ran into protests from the local blogging community that it was “filtering” (i.e., censoring) what websites users could access. Which can be read as one of a number of ways of purposely hobbling its system’s performance to appease the telecom industry’s hollow claims of unfair competition with their paid internet services. In the Cambridge public wifi plan – which also looks to be in trouble – a similar hobbling effect is created by only offering slower-than-normal internet connections through its system.

It’s actually pretty difficult to find accurate information on what’s up with Boston muni wifi as the rather limited energy behind the project has seemingly dissipated. All the relevant city or advocate websites are either out of date or shut down. City of Boston web pages referring to the project haven’t been updated since 2007 (or 2006 in some cases). The same is true of City of Cambridge web pages on their muni wifi project.

The Boston Foundation and other non-profits sponsors are silent. Most noticeable is the absence of the Boston Wireless Advocacy Group formerly run by Michael Oh, the guy that owns the Tech Superpowers internet cafe and Mac repair business on Newbury Street. He was the most visible booster of the project next to Mayor Menino in 2006, but has dropped from view since then.

Still, wherever Boston’s at with its existing muni wifi plans, the fact remains that there’s just no substitute for a fully public taxpayer-funded muni wifi system. For example, comparing where U.S. cities are now to cities like Paris, France that have real public muni wifi (check out this site for a map of Paris’ public wifi access points) shows precisely how far behind the curve we are. Even forcing Comcast and Verizon to change their home and business wifi service contracts to allow for public use of the tens of thousands of existing wifi access points around the city (the way Fon and other European telecom companies are doing in many cities) would be an excellent alternative to the current mess.

Of course both these potential solutions involve privileging the public sector over the private sector – and with corporate power over our government at all levels still in the ascendant, this will only happen if powerful social movements arise to force the issue. Winning a real public wifi system will take a great deal of work, needless to say, but it’s surely a battle worth fighting.

Because unless Boston and other American cities are willing to admit that access to the internet is a basic right in an age where being an information have-not is the equivalent of being shut out of the political and economic systems, and agree to devote tax money to provide the needed coverage as a public service, then we’re going to continue to see only fitful progress toward the goal of universal public internet access in the U.S. There will certainly be no improvements on the federal level until there’s a changing of the guard after the November Presidential election, and maybe not even then. So progress in regional centers like Boston will still be critically important to moving policy change on the national level.

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