Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

As corporate telecommunications giants accelerate their efforts to create a two-tiered Internet, one of our greatest tools for democracy and equality is under assault. America already lags far behind other industrialized nations in Net access–paying “two to three times as much for slower and poorer quality service than countries like South Korea or Japan”–and if big telecom succeeds, the Internet may be slower and more costly than ever.

Fortunatrely, media rights activists are fighting–and winning–battles to ensure that more, not fewer, are given access to the web. One of the major fronts in the fight to equalize Internet access has been the effort to provide universal wireless service, and cities across the nation are rapidly embracing WiFi-for-all initiatives.

In 2004, Philadelphia became the first major city in the US to launch a universal, affordable wireless Internet service, creating a massive “wireless mesh network” which will reach 135 miles throughout the city. Philly’s plan, which is slated to be available in 2007, will cost around $20 per month and about half as much for low-income residents–far below the market rate for high-speed Internet access.

San Francisco already has a community wireless program in the works, and several other major cities, including Chicago and Boston have created task forces for universal Wi-Fi plans. Meanwhile, smaller towns and cities like Urbana, Illinois, are also passing “magnificent pro-wireless resolutions,” according to Sascha Meinrath of the media reform advocacy organization Free Press.

Of course, big telecom lobbyists are fighting tooth and nail to eliminate these programs, and have already helped to create laws in 14 states making it illegal for cities to build their own wireless grids. Louisiana is one of these states, and in New Orleans–where free Wi-Fi access was made available in the wake of Katrina–big telecom is trying to shut down this critical source of communication for desperately needy residents.

“Whether you look at broadband penetration rates, service speeds, or basic costs of broadband provision, the US is pretty stagnant compared with the rest of the industrialized world,” says Meinrath, and community wireless initiatives “have the potential to address” many of these problems. (Meinrath warns that some of the municipal models, like San Francisco, are in danger of becoming “usurped by the same corporations that created such exorbitantly priced, substandard telecommunications services in the first place.”)

To engage in the fight for fair and universal wireless access, check out Free Press, and urge your Senators to co-sponsor the Community Broadband Act, which would enable states and cities to legally build community wireless grids. In an age of deceit and misinformation, we need a robust, accessible, and affordable Internet more than ever.

Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, contributes to The Nation’s new blog, The Notion, and co-writes Sweet Victories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.

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