Danny Hellman
Free, unfettered public access: Sounds like the Portland ideal, right? Years ago, there were the free-use yellow bikes. Anyone could pick up one of 500 canary-colored bicycles and "borrow" it for a while--to go shopping, to pedal off to a local coffee shop, to commute to work. But that idea fell flat when people started keeping the bikes for themselves, and eventually the urge for personal ownership overruled a communal ideal.

Likewise, the idea of free, unfettered Internet access in Portland has also begun to run afoul of the realities of technology, as well as the business interests of major communication companies.

Two years ago, Intel ranked cities across the nation for their "unwired" capacities. Portland ranked first. Much of this success was due to Personal Telco, a local non-profit that puts Wi-Fi hotspots around town. Over the past few years, Telco has installed 100-plus such nodes around Portland--not to mention the hotspots that are springing up in private homes and apartment buildings. They've even planned a small Wi-Fi cloud that will cover much of Mississippi Avenue.

But in spite of these successes--and the ever-growing geographic spread of Wi-Fi around town--city hall is now stepping in to control the debate and decide the direction Wi-Fi will take in Portland.

Two weeks ago, city council unanimously voted to accept proposals to "unwire Portland," and by summer's end, city hall will be accepting plans from vendors and ISPs to put in place and manage this wide reaching wireless service. The plan has the noble intention of pioneering a Wi-Fi cloud that will hang over the city, providing Internet service to residents--but don't be fooled; these services will come at a cost. (Some services, like the city's website, will be free of charge; but most other web surfing will cost roughly $20 a month).

In part, the plan also hopes to pull ownership of the Internet away from major corporations (like Verizon) who control DSL and cable lines and charge $40-plus per month. But ironically, the city's plan potentially gives these very same corporations a strong foothold in Wi-Fi--a realm that until now has largely been controlled by private power-to-the-people entities like Personal Telco. Under the current plan, one of these companies could be the one who controls (and essentially owns) the city's Wi-Fi cloud.

Not unlike the ongoing debate over public ownership of utilities like PGE, the arguments over ownerships of Wi-Fi have been tethered between Socialist ideals and corporate interests.

The current debate began in earnest last summer when the city of Philadelphia declared they would blanket the city with a 135-square-mile Wi-Fi cloud. In response, Verizon rushed off to the Pennsylvania state legislature and successfully sponsored a bill banning municipalities from providing fee-based wireless services without at least allowing private companies the chance to bid for the project.

Meanwhile, other cities have entered into the fray with a variety of proposals--some, like San Francisco, plan to offer out-and-out free access, while others, like Tempe, Arizona, are turning the project over to a private corporation. Portland's plan falls somewhere in the middle.

Over the next few months, city officials will address everything from technology considerations to content discussions, and it's important for all local Internet users to make their voices heard. The next public forum will be held on Thursday July 28 at OAME Building, 7134 N Vancouver, 5-7 pm.