Of course there is the argument that government should stay out of the way when it comes to broadband. Sometimes it is easy to forget how much the private industry benefits when government steps in to provide or facilitate basic infrastructure. Private industry benefits tremendously from our road systems, reliable power infrastructure, clean water, sewer systems and public safety. A robust, ubiquitous high-speed broadband infrastructure will facilitate interactions between businesses, allows private industry to deliver new and innovative services to customers and allows employees to be productive where ever they are at.
Government’s role is to take into account the public good. Just as government decides where highways, roads and streets go to serve the public good through careful planning, design, implementation and maintenance, the same approach should apply to broadband. To elaborate, government plans and designs the nation’s road infrastructure, frequently overseeing the construction of it by private companies and then manages the finished product. This infrastructure serves the public good, including the delivery and transport of private commerce as well as ensuring that we were able to travel on a series of federal, state, county and local roads to this meeting today in Eagan.
This same approach can be used to ensure that broadband serves the public good. Just as we would not leave the design of our road systems to the trucking industry, because each company has a limited need, and understandably so, therefore government has taken a leading role in the nation’s road infrastructure to ensure that it serves everyone’s needs.
So if we determine that broadband is one of the “basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society” then I would say yes, government has a role in broadband policy. I am clear that the Saint Paul Broadband Advisory Committee did indeed feel that broadband has become a basic infrastructure.
I was just reminded of an excellent presentation given by Andrea Casselton back on October 17, 2007, after the Saint Paul Broadband Advisory Committee developed this report. Unfortunately, the city of Saint Paul has not followed through on the fine recommendations of the Committee. As in so many other places, the economic downturn has made public investments more difficult. But not impossible.
Good afternoon, I am Andrea Casselton, the Director of the Office of Technology and Communications for the City of Saint Paul. Thank you for holding this important hearing. On behalf of the City of Saint Paul, I would like to present some thoughts on the role of government in broadband policy.
As part of my role for the City I acted as chair for the Saint Paul Broadband Advisory Committee which met from August 2006 to July 2007. The committee was comprised of 20 representatives from the community, government, a labor union, non-profits, education, and business associations. Some of the representatives on the BAC were also experts in the field of broadband and wireless technology.
Several weeks ago the Committee’s recommendations report was published. My comments borrow heavily from that report.
In my opinion, in order to decide whether there is a role for local and state government in the deployment of broadband in the state of Minnesota, we must first decide if we consider broadband to be infrastructure.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines infrastructure as: “The basic facilities, services, and installations needed for the functioning of a community or society, such as transportation and communications systems, water and power lines, and public institutions including schools, post offices, and prisons.”
For cities, towns and counties to successfully compete in the global economy they must be connected to the world. From harbors to railroads, from highways to airports, infrastructure has historically enabled the exchange of commerce, information, and people. Whether it is a rural town or a major metropolitan city, to remain economically competitive in the 21st century, they must be connected to a new infrastructure – affordable, high-capacity broadband telecommunications.
Broadband, viewed ever increasingly as a utility, provides this new connection to employment, educational opportunities, accessible healthcare, public...Read more
We dedicated a lot of coverage to Time Warner Cable's purchasing legislation to handicap communities from building competitive networks. Kara Millonzi, from the University of North Carolina School of Government, examined the new law and made a potentially interesting point.
Communities have a steep mountain to climb to build a self-financing community network in the state but if a community wanted to treat broadband infrastructure like the roads they manage, the law may not impact them.
As stated above, S.L. 2011-84 imposes some significant limitations on a municipality’s authority to provide cable and Internet services. With some exceptions, the limitations apply to a “city-owned communications service provider.” A city-owned communications service provider is defined as:
- a city
- that provides cable, video programming, telecommunications, broadband, or high-speed Internet access service (collectively, communication services)
- directly, indirectly, or through interlocal agreement or joint agency
- to the public
- for a fee
- using a wired or wireless network (communications network).
This definition is important because the new limitations only apply to municipalities that meet all of its elements. In particular, the Act’s provisions only apply to a municipality that provides the listed services “for a fee.” That means that the requirements do not apply to any municipality that provides the above-listed communication services for free to the public. Many local governments provide free Wi-Fi service in their downtown or other central business areas. (In fact, I am taking advantage of Town of Carrboro’s free Wi-Fi as I draft this post.) If a municipality uses its unrestricted general fund revenue to finance this service, or any other communications services, it is not subject to the new Act’s provisions. (Note that many local governments actually offer this service by taking advantage of excess capacity on their internal broadband networks.)
Though it is an extreme long shot, it would be fascinating to see a community build a network without charging a direct fee to access. It would also be fun to see Time Warner Cable hoisted on their own petard after...Read more
I have long been a fan of Larry Lessig's work, so I was proud to see him use our work as the foundation for his presentation at the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum. He talks about the fundamental right of communities to build their own networks as well as Time Warner Cable's successful purchase of competition-limiting legislation in North Carolina.
Bob Frankston has long been critical of both telecommunications companies and the regulators who are supposed to oversee them (but instead are often captured).
Bob has published a lengthy explanation of what is wrong with the US approach to expanding access to the Internet and the beginnings of an alternate approach. This paragraph from his conclusion is where I'll start:
We have a right to communicate. If we fund infrastructure instead of charging for services we can realize that right.
A number of thoughtful people have made the same comments and I believe we will ultimately build access to the Internet as infrastructure (rather than as discrete services arising from the history of telecommunications), but I'm not sure how we will get there.
Perhaps it helps for some to remember just how far we have some. Most of the people pushing for the government to stop regulating the gatekeepers to the Internet seem not to understand why government regulates telecommunications providers. Simply put, when telecommunications was largely unregulated, they screwed their subscribers.
The FCC defines a “completed call” as one that merely rings. It’s a perfect example of naïve indifference to the larger question of why we are using the phone. To a user (a word that makes us forget we are talking about people) a call is complete when you reach a person or, at least, leave message. Yet the phone companies didn’t allow answering machines until the Supreme Court overruled them in the 1968 Carterfone decision.
This story is repeated again and again because it is at the very heart of the concept of telephony. In 1956 they lost the Hush-A-Phone decision. They tried to prohibit people from putting a box around their phone! That was the extent to which the providers went to preserve control and dictate how you were supposed to use their network.
As Frankston rightly points out (here and elsewhere), the best one can say about regulation is that it has been imperfect. This is one reason we encourage public ownership rather than regulation from an authority closer to those regulated than the people...Read more
In the world of essential infrastructure, thousands of years of history have taught us that entities, acting on their own narrow interest, cannot be trusted to build or govern the building blocks of commerce or transportation. The temptation to abuse that powerful position has always proved too much for those without accountability to the public.
For instance, if the only way to move goods is a canal, private canal owners will price at a high level or use their position to take a stake in all the industries using the canal. Such an arrangement is great for the canal owners but poor for the rest of society. Witness the history of canals and railroads.
Two options to dealing with this problem have historically been either regulation or public ownership of such infrastructure. Readers of this site are undoubtedly well aware of our preference for public ownership - a structural approach using coops, local government, or non-profits to ensure the interests of the public at large receive the highest priority.
This post explains one of the reasons a regulatory approach, whereby private companies still own the infrastructure (and often make key decisions) but must go through some form of public body that is supposed to prevent the natural interests of the private company from taking over and reducing the benefits to society at large.
Writing in the Financial Times, John Kay explains regulatory capture, the process by which the agency or commission supposed to regulate effectively begins to act more in the interests of those regulated rather than the public. An obvious example of this is the Minerals Management Agency that has long improperly overseen the extraction industry, leading to the BP Gulf Oil Hole.
As Kay rightly explains, there are multiple kinds of capture from outright corruption to something that leads some political science geeks bring up Gramsci and Hegemony...
But the most common form of capture is honest and may be characterised as intellectual capture. Every regulatory agency is dependent for information on the businesses it regulates. Many of the people who run regulated companies are agreeable, committed individuals who are properly affronted by any suggestion that their activities do not serve the public good. Few members of the public, by contrast, ever make contact with a regulatory agency...
Alex Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York City, recently asked why more cities aren't building fiber-optic broadband networks. The subtitle: "Don't wait to find out if Google will install broadband in your city."
He correctly notes this is not a new argument - cities have run utilities for decades (and been attacked for it regularly throughout).
Infrastructure is one of the primary ways that towns, cities and states can make themselves more competitive. Build the right thing at the right time, and new residents, jobs and businesses will come. But this terrain is rife with strife. A century ago, towns and cities started public power companies, and saw private power companies resist such efforts in courts and with legislation. Today many of these public power companies are doing quite well, thank you very much, as exemplified by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and others in small towns.
This is not your standard argument for cities to start building networks - Alex makes some novel points and the short column is well worth the full read.
Over the holiday break, I was visiting family in central Minnesota where they rely on dial-up for getting on the Internet. Translation: They are not on the Internet. Though I have previously said this, my experiences reminded me that nothing I do on the Internet on a daily basis is possible to do over dialup. I use gmail for my email - the delays in reading messages are intolerable and render email painful. Checking news sites is right out - they load up with all kinds of images and rich media advertisements. There is no "surfing" because it takes minutes to load a page - more like running through water than surfing over it. When I visit other family south of the metro area, I can use slow DSL - the best connection available there (at a price greater than what I pay in Saint Paul for a far faster connection) and the difference is notable - particularly when I try to send a large file to someone. When I returned home, I was ever-so-thankful for my faster cable connection... which is still far slower than options in many European or Asian countries though I pay far more than they do. Last month, Ben Scott of Free Press spoke on the NPR show "On the Media" regarding the importance of Internet access:
And if you look back through the 20th century over the last 100 years of history, what you see is every time a new technology came along that later became a fundamental infrastructure that no one would disagree is necessary for universal access, there was this debate. Do people really need to have flush toilets in their house? I can make do with an outhouse. Do we really need to have electricity? Farmers in Iowa, they like their candles. Why would anyone want to have a telephone in their house? Then people can bother you in the evenings.
The longer we waste our time hoping private companies will sufficiently invest in the next generation infrastructure we need for modern communications, the farther behind we will fall and the more frustrating our connections will be. In February, when the FCC is required to present a national broadband plan, the Obama Administration will almost certainly unveil a timid plan rather than risk threatening the massive profits of companies like Comcast and AT&T. As in previous years, it is still up to forward-thinking communities to build the networks of tomorrow. Welcome to 2010. For us, 2010 will start...Read more