Spectrum Commons: WiFi and GATS

One of the emerging hot-button issues in the tech world seems to be competition between public (either grassroots or governmental) and private wireless network providers.

A while back, Larry Lessig posted about the challenges the City of Philadelphia was facing as it tried to set up a public wireless network for its citizens. The State legislature recently passed a bill with the unintended consequence of making it illegal for cities to offer telecommunications services for compensation if that competes with private enterprise. In other words, the City could not charge a fee for the service if any private company wanted to offer the same service.

Via Smartmobs I came across this article which puts that story in a broader context, detailing several grassroots groups seeking to offer wireless internet access for their communities but facing legal hurdles all along the way.

Clearly freely available (or low-fee community-run) wireless networks have the potential to severely impact revenues of telecoms companies who have business plans based on providing that same service, but isn’t being under-cut one of the risks of running any business?

What I have yet to see is any discussion of the parallels between this situation and the World Trade Organisation’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). GATS is an international agreement designed to ‘liberalise’ (open to competition) a variety of public services (ie. healthcare, education tourism), and includes within its provisions constraints on the level to which the public sector can be involved in ‘liberalised’ sectors. Put simply, it means that government cannot put in place its own services that obstruct the profits of a private company.

It’s not clear what impact, if any, GATS would have on grassroots-run (as opposed to government-run) services, but it is clear that over time the notion of ‘essential’ services will shift. If GATS already covers a particular service, then it will be extremely difficult for a government to ensure its citizens have access to that ‘essential’ service. In other words, as time goes on the threat GATS poses to democracy will only increase, and the situation Philadelphia has faced over WiFi access is simply a taster of what that will look like.

“The GATS is not just something that exists between Governments. It is first and foremost an instrument for the benefit of business” — European Commission, 1999

You can find out more about GATS at gatswatch.org.

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