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A Harrisburg "Hail Mary"

Meanwhile, at the state level, for nearly two years a telecom bill titled House Bill No. 30 (HB30) had been quietly making its way through committee. This bill regulating public utilities replaced legislation that expired in 2003 and covers areas such as telephone rates, broadband services, school district support for Internet access, and low-cost telephone services for eligible Pennsylvanians.

At the last minute, and after months of corporate lobbying, a rider was added preventing municipalities from providing access to the Internet. As originally written, HB30 would have effectively killed Wireless Philadelphia by "[prohibiting] municipalities from delivering telecommunications services for compensation if it competes with private enterprise." [5]

Moreover, MuniWireless.com, which covers municipal wireless and broadband projects, reported that the most restrictive covenants were not added until a week before the bill was to be voted on, in late November 2004. This clause resulted from an eleventh-hour move on the part of state representatives who had been heavily lobbied by telecom lobbyists. The rider attached to HB30 would require municipalities to make a written request to their local exchange telecommunications company to ascertain their intentions and, in effect, seek their permission before proceeding with any municipal deployment.

Rep. William Adolph, Jr. lamented that in the prior twenty months when the bill was open for public hearings and comment, no one paid attention until Philadelphia hit the radar screen. Now, Philadelphia was in the center of the storm.

The bill passed both the House and the Senate, a month early and in the wee hours before the Thanksgiving recess. Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press in Washington, DC, characterized the efforts of corporate interests as "the most outrageous abuse of power I have ever witnessed."

Once the bill reached the desk of Governor Ed Rendell, Philadelphia's former (and very popular) mayor voiced grave reservations. Stealth maneuvers by Ed Schwartz of the Executive Committee for Wireless Philadelphia enlisted the grassroots efforts of Prometheus, Media Tank, Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), Common Cause, and MoveOn to pressure the Governor not to sign the legislation.

A compromise, struck and eventually signed by Governor Rendell, allows government-sponsored WiFi services operating in Pennsylvania by January 1, 2006, to be grandfathered and therefore continue operating without repudiation. Pennsylvania was now the fifteenth state in the country with restrictive legislation against alternative-access systems, giving preferential treatment to the telecom industry. This agreement has placed enormous pressure on Philadelphia to ramp up by the 1/1/06 deadline, and many smaller cities and towns in the state are crying foul.

Not only did the Mayor get the message from Harrisburg; closer to home, others were aggrieved—albeit for different reasons.

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