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Luddite Lake City 

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Salt Lake City’s Main Street was treated to a small celebration on Tuesday morning.

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That’s when television cameras and a small crowd gathered round to hear Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson extol the virtues of our city’s new “Wi-Fi” access on Main Street from South Temple to 400 South from an installation inside Sam Weller’s Books. Don’t forget wireless Internet service at the Gallivan Center and Main City Library, either. And just in case you’re really anxious, remember that the city will have free wireless Internet service at both Pioneer Park and Liberty Park come 2006.

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All this is good news, indeed. Best of all, these Wi-Fi installations cost you and me, the Salt Lake City taxpayer, not one thin dime. They’re provided free of cost by our good friends at XMission, a company that believes in the future of technology.

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Too bad we can’t say the same for our city. Here’s a bold prediction: History won’t give a damn about the deployment of our city’s limited-access Wi-Fi installations. But it will most certainly remember April 13, 2004, the day our mayor and City Council rejected participating in and contributing to the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, better known as UTOPIA. Sure, UTOPIA was expensive. A high-speed broadband telecommunications service networked across the state, it required $540 million in construction bonds.

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Virtually every economist and entrepreneur worth their salt acknowledges the importance of high-speed information technology in today’s economy. Nevertheless, Anderson, plus an unlikely alliance of taxpayer-advocacy groups, deemed UTOPIA too expensive and too risky. Besides, private corporations such as Qwest would provide us with all we’ll ever need. “Let the free market provide,” they said, in effect.

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Few people these days have the guts to bet against the best in technology, but we did. Those who’ve argued with their cell-phone provider'and that includes most of us'know that private corporations aren’t necessarily better managed than municipal services.

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Meanwhile, the more forward-leaning cities of Portland, Ore., and Philadelphia are preparing to launch Wi-Fi signals citywide beginning in 2006. Not content with access to areas of just three or four blocks, anyone in those cities with a laptop or even a cell phone will have Internet access. Owners of businesses large and small will operate online. Commuters can check traffic reports before driving to work. Law enforcement will have faster, more comprehensive access to crime records, fingerprint databases and access to floor plans and alarm systems at crime scenes.

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Those are just some of the possibilities of municipally funded wireless Internet access. As for the high-speed fiber-optic network Salt Lake City rejected last year, don’t worry. San Diego households have enjoyed broadband connections since the late 1990s. Our economic competitors in South Korea, Sweden and Canada had us beat long ago. An FCC report last year ranked the United States 10th in international broadband connectivity. This year we’ve slipped again, to 16th. In an election speech last year President Bush boasted that “every corner” of America would have broadband access by 2007, but banning gay marriage and introducing “intelligent design” into public schools proved much higher priorities after he won re-election.

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So let us brag a little about our city’s new Wi-Fi Internet connections. Just be sure you don’t brag about them next year if you run into someone from Portland or Philadelphia.

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