• United States

Keep the feds out of broadband

Mar 06, 20063 mins

A few columns back, I mentioned that universal broadband access is a top policy issue in Washington this year. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps put it recently: “We may be the only industrial country on the face of God’s green earth that doesn’t have a national plan for broadband deployment.”

Uh, OK. And that’s bad because . . . exactly why?

The most cogent argument I’ve heard has to do with basic fairness and the need to address the “digital divide” between rich and poor. As Consumer Federation Research Director Mark Cooper said recently, in 1934 the United States made the decision to support universal telephone service to all households – and today that should include broadband.

Fair enough. But a general sentiment that “everybody should have broadband access” shouldn’t necessarily translate to the need for a government policy for broadband deployment. Three reasons:

1. Who are we to dictate how people should spend their money? Having a refrigerator in every household helps people eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, and also supports the grocery and produce industries (not to mention the folks who make and sell refrigerators). Refrigerators are a great idea. But we don’t have a “national refrigerator” policy.

2. There’s no guarantee such a scheme will actually work. You may have noticed that the Universal Service Fund (USF) is an echoing disgrace. Far from helping the underprivileged, the USF has funneled taxpayer dollars to everyone from mobsters to millionaires. As I wrote a year ago (www., the Gambino crime family bilked the USF of some $22 million by pretending to provide universal services to the 2,600 denizens of Peculiar, Mo. And the telcos of Jackson Hole, Wyo., tapped the USF last summer to extend telephone services to remote summer homes – where the average family income is more than $85,000, and 51% of the houses cost $300,000 or more. The USF can’t manage its way out of a paper bag – and we’re going to give these guys more taxpayer money to misappropriate?

3. How about we start by prohibiting the feds from outlawing municipal and community broadband access? Yes, you read that right. As noted in a previous column, last May House Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) introduced a bill (still under consideration) that would ban municipal Wi-Fi networks from every city in the country. Apparently, municipal Wi-Fi is such a bad idea that the federal government needs to save us from ourselves. And in case you’re wondering – yes, the telcos are one of Sessions’ top three campaign contributors.

So now we have the feds trying to tell local municipalities they can’t spend their own citizens’ tax dollars on enabling broadband – at the same time they’re trying to persuade us we need to spend federal dollars on the same exact thing.

Nice try, no cigar. Until someone convinces me the free market can’t do a better job than the feds at providing affordable broadband to everyone who wants it, let’s stick with the status quo.