From: Norm Jacknis (email@example.com)
Date: Wed Apr 23 2003 - 20:32:43 EDT
Can Wi-Fi Take Us the Last Mile?
New FCC rules make it harder for DSL upstarts to compete with the Baby
But the wireless revolution might keep the big guys honest.
By Cory Doctorow, April 2003 Issue
So much for consumer choice. The Federal Communications Commission has
its back on the public by abandoning rules that require the Baby Bells to
accommodate competition in broadband services. Until recently the Baby
heirs to the nation's local telephone lines after the AT&T (T) breakup in
- were required to share their lines with new rivals at set prices. This
created a competitive marketplace that allowed nimble players like EarthLink
(ELNK) and Covad to roll out flexible, low-cost alternatives to the Baby
highly restrictive DSL plans.
Entrepreneurs have taken advantage of these rules to nurture new services
technologies. Speakeasy, a national ISP based in Seattle, allows customers
operate personal Web servers and wireless access points so neighbors and
passersby can share their Internet connections. The Baby Bells absolutely
forbid residential customers to engage in that sort of thing.
The new FCC regs will allow the Baby Bells to price broadband competitors
of the market. The feds have thrown the rate-pricing question back to the
states, saying, in effect, You figure it out. That means that in some states
might get vibrant markets, while in others -- places where the phone company
in bed with the local government -- we'll get no competition.
The outlook is especially grim for the burgeoning market in
technologies, which allow anyone to make local and long-distance telephone
calls via the Internet at a fraction of the telecoms' rates. It's hard to
imagine the Bells voluntarily allowing customers to sidestep their core line
business. More likely, they'll use blocking and sniffing technology to
the use of Internet-protocol-based telephony services.
"Open wireless" is also likely to end up in the Bells' crosshairs. Open
wireless networks allow passersby to connect to the Internet for free with a
laptop and a wireless card. Community groups like the NYCwireless collective
have inundated public spaces such as Bryant Park with free wireless, and the
group also contributed to Manhattan's disaster relief effort after 9/11 by
creating a network of open wireless access points for struggling local
businesses. Yet the Bells' service agreements don't allow customers to
public networks. If niche players like Speakeasy are frozen out of the
residential DSL market, open wireless access points are likely to become
But all is not lost. Tim Pozar of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group has
embarked on an ambitious plan to install high-speed wireless access points
the peaks of San Francisco's famous hills -- a move that is legal under the
same FCC data-communication regulations that gave rise to the Wi-Fi
Under Pozar's plan, anyone with a directional antenna (a surplus satellite
or even a modified Pringles can will do the trick) would be able to aim it
the nearest hilltop and connect to the Web for free. Such "wireless ISPs"
(wISPs) have serious commercial potential: Instead of needing the Bells'
expensive last-mile wires to reach customers, wISPs create sprawling,
networks serviced by strategically placed antennas.
Now that the FCC has abandoned any pretense of giving the public the best
possible deal for Internet service, such wireless experiments may well be
last bulwark of competition the Baby Bells face. Pozar and others won't
displace wireline DSL anytime soon. But their presence may be enough to keep
the Bells honest -- encouraging them to treat users like customers rather
passive "consumers." America has been waiting for 20 years for the phone
companies to act like real businesses. Under the new regime, entrepreneurial
and philanthropic efforts may be the only ways to make broadband service
ubiquitous and competitive.
Cory Doctorow is the author of the science fiction novel "Down and Out in
Magic Kingdom" and co-editor of the Boing Boing weblog at
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