Do not be fooled — this debate is not between “purely” private companies and municipal governments; it is between heavily-subsidized beneficiaries of governmental handouts on one side and locally-elected and openly accountable public servants on the other.
Community Broadband Quotes
Incumbent providers, grown lazy on a steady diet of public subsidies and monopoly rents, have done their best to cast this as a debate between efficient private competitors and inefficient government monopolies. But it is the incumbents that would rather regulate than compete. They resist municipal entry not because it is incompetent – no one resists incompetent competitors – or because it is unnecessary.
It is duplicitous to suggest that the incumbents represent the “free market” against “government-subsidized” municipal networks. Incumbents are incumbents precisely because they have had the weight and resources of government to back them up for years. Furthermore, they have had backing from those levels of government - the federal and state - which are least pervious to direct participation by local residents.
It is inherently dangerous to a democracy for all of its telecommunications infrastructure to be held in the hands of unelected and unaccountable private actors with no obligation to behave in a nondiscriminatory manner. Municipal networks by their nature answer directly to the local community and their policies are subject to scrutiny and modification by public action, if need be at the ballot box. The preservation of a system of mixed public and private ownership of telecommunications infrastructure is essential to maintaining the free flow of information unfettered by the economic interests of dominant private actors.
Paradoxically, the incumbents argue that public sector broadband is both an unfair competitor and obviously an inferior service doomed to failure in the market.
For three quarters of a century, the Communications Act has defined a successful communications policy as fostering ubiquitous, affordable service available on a nondiscriminatory basis in competitive markets. The penetration of phone service of over 90% for a quarter of a century in this country, as compared to penetration rates in most of the rest of the world, was widely touted as an example of our success as a nation and as critical to maintaining a unified society in which all had access to a technology critical for health, safety, and economic advancement.
Local governments do not favor themselves on taxes or right of ways or otherwise compete unfairly with incumbent telecommunications and incumbent cable companies. To the contrary, private incumbents enjoy a wealth of state and federal subsidies, guaranteed rates of return, regulated rates for pole attachments, etc. In addition, local telephone companies enjoyed years of regulated monopoly status to build positions of dominance they continue to enjoy.
Municipal systems do not “crowd out” private providers any more than the New York City Subway “crowds out” private taxi cabs and car services. To the contrary, studies and anecdotal evidence repeatedly show that where municipal systems take on the expensive task of building network infrastructure, the number of private providers increases.
Imagine if Borders and Barnes & Noble, claiming it was killing their book sales, asked lawmakers to ban cities from building libraries. The legislators would laugh them out of the State House. Yet the same thing is happening right now with respect to Wi-Fi and other municipal broadband plans, and it is being taken all too seriously.
Public sector agencies are the nation’s largest telecom customers. A community with a population of 40,000 purchases an estimated $1.1 million dollars annually in telecom services – costs offset by use of I-Nets. Imagine the devastation on local budgets when state video franchising laws eliminate I-Nets as compensation for use of public right-of-way. It’s rumored that a cable operator can charge a California community $45,000 a month to use a thirty-drop I-Net that, prior to passage of the state video franchising law, had been part of payments for use of public rights-of-way.