After several failed attempts, federal legislation that would allow small cities and counties to provide their own high-speed Internet service is likely to become law.

Nearly 20 states allow only private telecommunications providers to install high-speed broadband networks. In the rush to gain market share, national and even rural telecommunications companies generally have ignored smaller markets, saying they'll eventually wire smaller towns and cities?but at their convenience.

Some communities couldn't wait. When they installed fiber optic wire line or wireless broadband networks on their own, private providers filed suit.

That was true of Bristol, Va., which installed a fiber optic system five years ago. The city prevailed when challenged in court, much to the relief of Kelly Miller, an engineering aide in the public works department who gets requests weekly from developers seeking typography data files.

"Fiber offers us the ability to receive and send large data files, such as the aerial photography of Bristol, which is 131?2 square miles," he says. "Those files can run almost 14 gigabits of data, and there's no way we could do that over a dial-up connection." Miller hopes the city expands the network's capacity so the department can accommodate real-time video of roads, bridges, and waterways, as well as maps that show where public works vehicles are at any point during the day.

According to a 2006 Federal Trade Commission report, at least 19 states have proposed or enacted legislation that defines, restricts, or eliminates a city's or county's ability to provide wireless Internet service. Many recently proposed bills that also require cities and counties to conduct feasibility studies, long-term cost-benefit analyses, public hearings, or referendums?all time consuming and costly endeavors.

In February, the U.S. House of Representatives Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee held hearings on the Community Broadband Act, which was passed by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in October. The act prohibits state restrictions of municipal broadband networks, a provision that was part of larger telecommunications packages Congress passed in 2006 but that failed to become law. Because of the urgency of freeing cities from state restrictions, separate community-focused bills were introduced last year.

President Bush is expected to sign the bill, thereby ending the entire controversy. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right of statesto enact these barriers.

? Stephen Barlas is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who's covered federal government issues since 1981.

'Big Dig' backlash

Tunnel inspection standards are on the horizon.

Transportation departments will have to pay considerably more attention to the condition of tunnels if a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives clears the Senate as well, which is very likely.

Prompted by a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) inspection of a Boston tunnel collapse in 2006 that killed one person, the bill requires the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to set up a program for inspecting the nation's 400 tunnels. According to the NTSB, the tragedy could have been averted had the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority inspected the area above the tunnel's suspended ceilings at regular intervals and seen the "anchor creep" that led to the ceiling's failure.

The legislation passed on a voice vote in January, meaning it was noncontroversial, and referred to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Concerned that the bill could set off an intramural funding competition between tunnels and bridges, the House bill makesit clear that the program would be supported by federal funds other than those allocated for bridge repair, such as theSurface Transportation Program, FHWA administrative expenses, or surface transportation research funds.

The program would be modeled directly on the existing highway bridge inspection program. It would establish:

  • National highway tunnel inspection standards to ensure uniformity
  • A national tunnel inventory to publish the findings of all inspections
  • A national program for training and certifying inspectors.