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The passion of the states

In this case, the suffering is widespread, with states north to south and east to west bleeding in an uncertain economy with costly homeland security demands on governors, mayors and county officials. This too was foreseeable, as American manufacturing fades into the sunset and high-tech jobs rise overseas.

The states are down, but not out. Governors who huddled here last week had a lot to talk about, especially given the stakes in this fall’s presidential election.

Just as they have served as laboratories for innovative policy initiatives, states are becoming important test beds for emerging technologies-like Wi-Fi-and helping to transform blue-collar and rural towns into high-tech hubs.

Last Monday evening, the Detroit Wireless Project held a meeting to get city folks acquainted with low-cost access to high-speed Internet service via Wi-Fi technology. It is an inspiring-yet not unique-story in which Motor City and Motown monikers have given way in Detroit to “The Digital Drive.”

“The Detroit Wireless Project was born out of a desire to not only bring broadband Internet to those who cannot reach it, but also make it affordable for everyone to use. … DWP was created to better Detroit through a community effort. Through charity and education we can bring many different walks of life together to make Detroit a technological hub,” the nonprofit group says.

What the Clinton administration did for mobile-phone competition and growth, the Bush White House is doing for wireless Internet development. Luckily for consumers and wireless companies, this is not a zero sum game. The signs are that Wi-Fi-extending the reach of the office-and mobile telephony-extending the reach of the individual-will complement one another.

A driving force behind wireless development and innovation in cities and states is Public Technology Inc., a nonprofit technology arm of the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties and the International City/County Management Association.

But there is another side to all this. Some states are going after mobile-phone carriers-which contribute mightily to local economies-with the same fervor as their embrace of Wi-Fi. States and municipalities are blocking antenna siting and slapping new taxes on wireless carriers. State PUCs have new wireless regulations on the drawing board and state attorneys general are filing consumer-protection lawsuits against mobile-phone firms.

Emboldened by Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Thomas Carper (D-Del.), some states want flexibility to decide how Internet access and e-commerce might be taxed. The two lawmakers have caused a firestorm on Capitol Hill. It is the stuff of religious wars.

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