University of Southern California

Municipal Wireless Broadband: Hype or Harbinger?

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Article by Sharon E. Gillett
From Volume 79, Number 3 (March, 2006)

Municipal wireless is an important trend, but not for the reasons implied by much of the popular reporting that surrounds this topic. Cities are unlikely to dominate the roster of wireless broadband operators that directly serve the residential and business public. Municipalities, however, have been significant early adopters of innovative unlicensed wireless broadband technologies, providing both a market toehold to innovative products and services using those technologies, and an experimental testing ground for novel organizational models. Most cases of municipal wireless involve the use of unlicensed wireless broadband to meet the local government’s own needs for ubiquitous broadband services, or to construct public-private partnerships aimed at facilitating broadband wireless services to the business and residential public. These uses express local government interests long recognized as legitimate: provision of efficient city services, local economic development, and equity within the community. Thus, the concern for policymakers should not be whether cities should be involved in wireless broadband; there are legitimate reasons why they should, and why increasing numbers of them will be. Rather, the important public policy concern is how to ensure that, in the process of facilitating the first uses of wireless, city authority does not get subverted to create artificial limits on future broadband wireless competition. Doing so will require thoughtful melding of separate legal frameworks governing access to city property and public rights of way into a coherent policy that guides when exclusivity legitimately can or cannot feature in public-private partnership arrangements for communications services.

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