There’s a battle brewing in cities across the country, one with important implications for schools.

On one side are municipal governments that want to extend wireless internet access citywide. On the other side are local cable and telecommunications companies fighting to block such efforts, fearing these will cut into their broadband business.

Caught in the middle are educators, students, and other stakeholders who would benefit greatly from the promise of instantaneous, always-on, citywide wireless access. How these skirmishes play out could decide how quickly ubiquitous computing and the evolution of anytime, anywhere learning in these communities can be realized.

Citywide wireless access projects are now being prepared for several cities, including San Francisco, Anaheim Calif., Minneapolis, New Orleans, Portland Ore., and Philadelphia.

“The number of [public wireless communications] systems that are up and running, under consideration, or in development has grown geometrically over the past two or three years,” said Dave Baller, senior principal for the Baller Herbst Law Group, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that specializes in telecommunications issues.

Despite such efforts, recent research suggests the United States still lags behind other industrialized nations in terms of wireless access.

According to 2005 figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and development, an international nonprofit group that supports free-market economic development, the U.S. currently ranks 12th internationally in access to broadband internet services per 100 inhabitants. Baller and other experts attribute much of this sluggishness to the reluctance of local cable and phone companies to embrace citywide wireless projects.

“Telecoms have mounted ferocious battles at the local level, and numerous lawsuits have been filed against municipalities,” Baller said.

State legislation blocking or severely restricting the municipal deployment of wireless broadband has been passed in Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Tennessee. Such legislation also is being considered by lawmakers in at least seven states: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Despite these roadblocks, Baller and others say the educational benefits of low-cost, citywide wireless deployments are obvious.

“My son was recently preparing for a debate on gun rights. We have broadband [internet access] and a computer in the home. Within five minutes, he was able to download 40 reasons for and 40 against gun ownership,” Baller said.

“Compare his story to one about the migrant student, or anyone who doesn’t have convenient access. Who is going to get the better grade? Who’s going to graduate, get the better job?”

Colleen Kosloski, director of IT services for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), says a plan by city government officials to build a wireless network in Minneapolis will greatly benefit students by extending digital networks beyond the classroom and into their homes.

In 2005, MPS implemented a $2.2 million upgrade of technology services, which included a 45 megabit-per-second internet connection. The district plans to offer complete wireless mobility on all school campuses by 2007, with hot spots in at least 21 schools already.

According to Kosloski, a survey conducted by the district found about three in four Minneapolis students already have some sort of internet access at home. Kosloski said those numbers are heavily weighted toward middle- and upper-class students, however, and do not account for connection speeds and other variables.

“Home and community access is always an issue for us,” Kosloski said. “[W]e’re very excited to be partners with the city in making certain students and their families have greater access to broadband. It will be great to have on field trips and will benefit students … by more fully integrating learning into students’ lives outside the classroom.”

Kosloski said the project also will ensure that support staff members who have to travel between schools–community liaison officers, social workers, and others–will have access to the internet and the district’s network from the road.

Minneapolis has just issued a request for proposals for vendors to deploy its wireless project and has yet to run into any difficulties with telecommunications providers. Philadelphia, however, was not so lucky.

In a highly publicized case, Philadelphia in 2004 announced plans to roll out a citywide wireless network. The system was intended to offer low-cost wireless solutions to the city’s 1.5 million citizens, and it would have subsidized access for those who qualified for economic assistance.

But Verizon Communications Inc., the largest telecom provider in Philadelphia, objected to the plan. Verizon noted that it already provided subscription-based wireless access to the city’s citizens and said that a public project would result in unfair competition.

The company even went as far as to draft (and lobby for) a Pennsylvania state bill barring communities from building their own wireless networks, unless certain conditions were met. The measure, signed into law by Gov. Ed Rendell in November 2004, included a grandfather clause stating that any municipality with a citywide wireless network installed prior to Jan. 1, 2006, would be allowed to maintain service, as long as it had at least one paying customer by that date. Philadelphia officials, however, said that date was untenable for their own network, forcing them to reach a compromise with Verizon.

Under this agreement, the terms of which weren’t made public, Verizon waived its rights of first refusal, thereby allowing Philadelphia to offer the service to its citizens for a fee.

Philadelphia recently closed a deal with Earthlink Inc., in which Earthlink will pay for the city’s wireless infrastructure–not the city, as originally planned. The company will charge a wholesale rate of $9 a month to internet service providers, which then will resell access to the public, according to Dianah Neff, the city’s chief information officer. The exact cost to consumers is not yet known. City officials had been trying to keep the monthly cost to $20 or less, with further reductions for those who qualify for financial aid. City officials expect the network to be finished by the end of this year.

According to Vincent DeTolla, executive director of educational technology for the School District of Philadelphia, the delays in the city’s WiFi Philadelphia plan have not directly affected any school initiatives–but until it is complete, some families won’t have full access to a new online family outreach program that is ready to expand from 55,000 students and their families to 200,000, or every family in the district, he said.

The program, called FamilyNet, offers student grades, parent-teacher interaction, day-to-day student curricula, and other online services to parents. It also delivers multimedia learning programs aimed at extending learning directly into the homes of at-risk students. Unfortunately, DeTolla says, those students who most need the program likely will not have the bandwidth to access it until the city’s wireless infrastructure is in place.

“I’m concerned about home access to that learning material,” DeTolla said. “We need a larger pipeline for homes that are using [the discounted dial-up service]. Many of the parent and student resources available through FamilyNet require a larger pipeline.”

An amended version of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 could set clearer boundaries for the responsibilities and rights of cities and corporations as broadband access becomes increasingly necessary for education and economic competition.

The Telecom Act has regulated the internet market since the law’s inception, but is now considered a roadblock to continued digital progress in the United States. Critics of the 10-year-old law say its provisions are old and have failed to keep up with the constant evolution of newer, more powerful communications technologies.

In response, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed amendments to address the power municipal governments have in establishing broadband access. One bipartisan version co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., would amend the law to protect the rights of municipalities to deploy their own telecommunications systems, as long as anti-discrimination safeguards are in place to ensure that all applicable rules and ordinances are applied equally to municipalities themselves and to competing entities.

In the House, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, has proposed a bill that is an exact opposite of the McCain-Lautenberg bill. Called the Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005, Sessions’ bill proposes a federal barrier to “any municipal governments offering telecommunications, information, or cable services except to remedy market failures by private enterprise to provide such services.”

That bill has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which has scheduled hearings to address the debate between private broadband companies and municipal providers.

Until more federal guidance is available, it is likely that states and municipalities will continue to look to places like Philadelphia and elsewhere for guidance on how to approach such projects.

“There are all sorts of business models,” said telecom expert Baller. “Some are solely operated by local governments, some are public-private partnerships.” He added: “The implications of this kind of program for education are huge.”

See these related links:

Baller Herbst Law Group

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development

Telecommunications Act of 1996