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WiFi happenings

Dwight reports on the city’s downtown WiFi-enabled parking meters. That may sound silly, but there’s a purpose for it – the wireless networking will allow the meters to accept and verify credit cards for payment. My main reason for parking downtown these days is Comets games at the Toyota Center. The options I currently have are paying cash for an overpriced lot, or carrying a pile of coins for the long-term meters. Thankfully, at the last game I attended, my friend Andrea had $1.50 in quarters on her. I’d just as soon whip out the plastic, since I’m much too likely to be without the needed currency.

There’s a potential beneficial side effect to this, too:

If the city decides to open up the parking-meter network, by fall, downtown could be a big WiFi hot spot.

There are still plenty of details to be worked out, including how and whether WiFi users would pay for access.

[Richard Lewis, Houston’s chief technology officer] said using this system to spread public WiFi throughout the city would be tricky, as there aren’t parking meters all over town.

Lewis said the city’s been “going to school on this technology for a year and a half,” and there’s been a benefit to the delay. The costs to create a downtown hot spot have dropped dramatically — from an initial estimate of $1 million to $250,000.

And there’s good news on the municipal WiFi front, as a bipartisan bill to protect the rights of municipalities to offer the service to its citizens has been introduced in the Senate. Save Muni Wireless has the scoop.

Finally, though Governor Perry has said he will not add anything to the special session agenda until such time as a school finance deal is worked out, both chambers are holding hearings on various things telecom.

On Monday, witnesses packed a Senate committee hearing on legislation that would affect residential phone rates and the ability of phone companies to get into the television business.

Senate Bill 21 would lift state controls on residential phone rates in Texas cities larger than 30,000 people, starting in January.

SBC Communications Inc. would have to cut the rates it charges rivals for access to its network, a significant source of revenue. SBC and other dominant phone companies also would have to offer the same prices to everyone in those cities, except for six-month promotional deals.

That prompted the San Antonio-based phone giant to testify against the proposal, an unusual move for the company, which normally criticizes legislation in private.

“If you are deregulated, you have more flexibility than you do today,” SBC lawyer Tim Leahy testified before the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. However, “this (proposal) goes in the opposite direction.”

The measure also would authorize the Public Utility Commission of Texas to study the $640 million Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes phone service in rural areas, and to propose changes for the next regular legislative session. SBC and Verizon Communications Inc. get more than half of their subsidies from the fund.

The proposal also would deputize the PUC as the agency in charge of issuing a new statewide franchise for video services. It would require SBC and Verizon to match the level of in-kind services, such as public access channels, which are standard in cable franchise contracts with Texas cities.

For now, the testimony is academic; Gov. Rick Perry called the special session to deal only with school finance. The governor has said he would add other items only if a deal is reached on how the state pays for schools.

In anticipation of that happening, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, introduced SB 21 and is going ahead with hearings.

On Monday, Fraser rejected SBC’s suggestion to diminish the PUC’s role in revamping the Universal Service Fund.

“May I remind you SBC hired 200 lobbyists to try to impact the process,” Fraser said. “If there is not a hammer in place of the USF, they will hire another 200 next session and kill any legislation there will be.”

That USF is quite the cash cow for the telcos.

Fraser’s counterpart, Rep. Phil King, will be doing similar things in the House to try to resurrect his godawful telecom bill from the regular session. Apparently, he hasn’t read the letter he received from his hometown mayor on the subject.

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