Last week, the University of Wisconsin hosted an alumni panel whose professional careers were different, but message to students was the same: master the Internet as quickly as you can. Whether the panel members worked for Dow Jones, MarketWatch.com or the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, they stressed the necessity of Internet capability when entering the job market.

Once considered an added bonus, a clear understanding of how to create and navigate Internet websites has become expected in most communication careers. At the very least, it gives prospective employees a definite advantage during the often-arduous job search.

For most of us at UW, this is not new information. And if it is, it's good news. The majority of students have had Internet access at home and at school for the past decade and are comfortable with the basics of Internet use. However, there is an entire class of Americans, some of which are in Madison, that have not enjoyed the same privilege.

For many, the expense of Internet service has made it inaccessible. For others, the power and novelty of the medium is intimidating enough to keep them from experimenting with it. These are large problems that keep information and opportunity out of reach. Thankfully a movement is occurring in cities across the country that will close the digital divide, making the Internet more available for those groups and more convenient for the rest of us — the development of city-wide wireless Internet service. However, this Internet revolution is not happening easily.

Madison is one municipality working toward the introduction of a WiFi network. Over the past year, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and his administration have tried to negotiate a contract with AOL to provide wireless Internet service to the downtown area. AOL recently halted the plan, citing a "national strategic shift" that apparently no longer allowed them to contract with city governments seeking wireless service.

This probably shouldn't come as a surprise. Telecom and cable providers are growing increasingly frustrated with cities developing WiFi services, feeling that municipal networks are stealing their existing customers.

In Philadelphia, for example, Verizon threatened to pull out of a wireless agreement until Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell agreed to sign a telecom-industry-backed bill. The program-saving bill requires cities to get approval from each local provider before starting a municipal service.

"It doesn't make sense for [municipal] governments to jump into the private sector where there are plenty of alternatives, good prices and widely built-out technology," complained Link Hoewing, VP of Internet and technology policy at Verizon.

From a UW student's perspective, this complaint is dubious. Charter Cable Internet holds a near-monopoly on the campus area, and often charges more than $50 per month for its service. Compare that to Philadelphia residents who now pay $10-20. Clearly, municipal governments have good reason to "jump into" the provider role.

Unfortunately, Congress is paying more attention to the telecommunications industry than to the well being of its students and under-privileged individuals. Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas recently introduced a bill that would allow city-sponsored WiFi and other information technologies only in municipalities where services were not already available.

Despite this threat from the telecom industry and its congressional stooges, Madison should continue to pursue the WiFi plan because the city has already completed a large part of the development process.

For instance, we have a good infrastructure built into our city landscape. State Street and the Capitol Loop are both subject to building height regulations that have kept buildings at an average height of around four stories, and Internet hubs could easily be placed on lampposts that are scattered on the street.

The Wisconsin State Journal also noted that much of the legal contract work has already been accomplished — a grueling task that has stalled city wireless proposals in other locations.

Now, city officials should focus on re-opening the contract bidding and negotiation process. Cities from Tempe to San Francisco to aforementioned Philadelphia have had to reshape their wireless plan multiple times before finding a model that worked for users and providers. City officials should also work to ensure that the network eventually expands from downtown to lower-income areas, especially those containing schools. It would be admirable to hold educational programs for those unfamiliar with Internet use and basics once the WiFi network is in place as well.

Clearly there's a lot of work to do before the city's WiFi proposal can provide the kind of convenience and, more importantly, social changes that make it so attractive. However, it is certain the city government's efforts toward completion of this smart initiative will prove worthwhile and rewarding for UW students and the greater Madison community.

Sarah Howard ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and journalism.