Two weeks ago, the City of Charleston celebrated an achievement so remarkable that they went ahead and gave the day of its unveiling a name. No, I’m afraid it wasn’t to celebrate the installation of magic, flood-preventing trees on the Crosstown. And it also wasn’t to celebrate a new living-wage ordinance that would ensure that the plethora of hotels going up downtown will be able to provide decent jobs for people who want to live less than an hour away from where they work. It wasn’t even about providing basic rent controls in the city in lieu of raising wages.
No, it was Wireless Workday, a celebration of — hold your breath because this is epic — free wireless internet in four Charleston parks.
Oh, I’m sorry? You’re underwhelmed? Then certainly you’re not one of the thousands of city residents that this upgrade to the public parks was meant for. Or possibly the hundreds. Or maybe just the handful of students and tech-savvy business people looking for the opportunity to flee their classrooms and cubicles for the chance to study and code from the soothing environs of a public park.
You see, instead of working at making Charleston better for as many people as possible, the Riley administration is content to develop projects like this one, measures that make life better for only some people, in this case, folks who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to wi-fi, but who somehow still own laptops, tablets, and smart phones — sometimes even all three.
Of course, for most folks this kind of targeted telecommunications handout is simply unacceptable, or at least that’s the lesson I thought we learned way back in 2012 when some brilliant right-wing minds discovered that Ronald Reagan’s plan to make sure every household had access to basic phone services — you know, in case of an emergency or whatever — had been corrupted by the Left as part of a bizarre plot to give so-called Obamaphones to minorities in exchange for their votes on Election Day. Perish the thought that everyone should have access to publicly owned telecommunications. What’s next? Municipalities creating their own broadband services?
Well, in South Carolina (and at least 19 other states), we don’t have to worry about that, thanks to the tireless efforts of the big telecommunication firms, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Gov. Nikki Haley, who signed a bill prohibiting certain municipal broadband services. These prohibitions, while not technically making it illegal for a city to create a municipal broadband network, certainly make it harder.
And it’s easy to see why. After all, a municipal broadband provider like OptiNet in Bristol, Va., a non-profit arm of the area’s electric provider, Bristol Virginia Utilities, can offer internet to the home at speeds of up to one gigabit per second. While some private firms offer similar speeds and even comparable rates, one has to wonder if the added value of having those services provided by a smaller, more local, and non-profit option doesn’t have its advantages. If you think I’m way off base here, perhaps you haven’t spent an hour or more on hold with Comcast, AT&T, or Time Warner only to then have a bored “customer service specialist” walk you through their script of solutions that you have already tried (“Yes, I have rebooted the router.” “Yes, the TV is plugged in and turned on and I am on the correct input.”) In fact, it is very difficult to see why so-called libertarian and small-government people aren’t on board with municipal broadband. It puts the control of telecommunications into the small hands of local government.
The truth is these limited government types don’t really care about “local” anything; they’re just against the government being in control of anything. If you remove the government’s power from an area of the economy, that power is automatically given to the private sector, and with it go all of the people’s money, the taxes and, in some cases, charitable donations, used to fund the aforementioned government enterprise.
When it comes to the Holy City, instead of creating a municipal entity to provide broadband services, the city has selected Comcast to supply the bandwidth for all of the Wireless Workday lovers in Charleston’s parks — and we all know how much people love Comcast. On the plus side, a local company called Aerolina is installing and maintaining the system.
In the meantime, if you’re hanging out in one of Charleston’s lovely parks and you have a burning desire to do whatever it is you want with a free internet connection, by all means do so. But just don’t believe for one second that it really makes the city more livable for any more than a small fraction of Holy City residents.
If you want the City of Charleston to really make a name for itself, then you should support the idea of repealing the state law against municipal broadband providers and advocate for whichever mayoral and city council candidates are willing to take up that fight and move Charleston in the right direction in the 21st Century.