• United States

Let competition bring broadband to boonies

Apr 17, 20063 mins

Regular readers know I’m deeply skeptical of the supposed need for a federal universal broadband policy. That said, I’m well aware there are some parts of the country that are currently underserved by broadband services.

Even in the boondocks there are options, however. One is satellite; another is municipal wireless: As most readers are aware, municipalities from Philadelphia to San Francisco are deploying free or low-cost Wi-Fi networks for their citizens to use.

It’s a great idea: Let the taxpayers in those cities decide what services they want to provide – without federal interference. If citizens want to tax themselves to pay for universal broadband, more power to them. Just keep Big Brother out of it.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

Readers may recall that legislators, acting under the influence of the powerful telecom and cable lobbies, have proposed legislation recently that limits or restricts municipalities’ ability to bring broadband to the boonies. Last May, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) introduced a bill that bans governments from providing Internet services. In June, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a similar law. Last summer Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) introduced the Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act of 2005, which limits local governments’ ability to deploy public broadband systems.

But the one that really takes the cake is BellSouth’s recent jaw-droppingly obscene push to shut down New Orleans’ municipal Wi-Fi network – which is the only functioning communications network for large swaths of the city – on the grounds that state law prohibits municipalities from providing not-for-profit networks. No, I’m not making this up. Check it out.

I have nothing against telcos making a profit. Capitalism is the engine that drives the economy. But competition is the fuel. A business model based on lobbying politicians to stifle competition leaves the innovation engine running on fumes – and telcos and cable companies should be ashamed to do that.

Last I checked, the way to make a profit was to provide high-quality services that customers want to pay for. Cash-strapped municipalities may be able to offer a “lowest common denominator” service – and that’s great. Telcos and cable companies can benefit by offering higher-quality services; after all, if consumers were satisfied with “lowest common denominator” services, cable TV wouldn’t exist.

Fortunately, Congress may be getting a clue. Responding to Ensign’s bill, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) introduced the Community Broadband Act of 2005, which prohibits state laws that ban municipal networks. More recently, Congress has begun debating several telecom bills, some of which include provisions explicitly supporting municipal networks.

The bottom line? If you agree with me, write your lawmakers today – and if you disagree, let me know why you think it’s better to pass laws limiting innovation than to support it. I’d be interested.