Publicly owned broadband is the right idea

by Christopher Mitchell, Charleston Gazette

Just as railroads and highways were the essential infrastructure for development in the 19th and 20th centuries, broadband networks will be essential for 21st-century competitive economies. Small cities and even isolated, rural communities that have strong educational systems and human talent will be able to compete in the new global information economy.

West Virginia's beautiful mountains and valleys, coupled with low density make most of the state an unattractive investment for private phone and cable companies. Fortunately, no community has to be left behind, each can seize the future with smart public investments.

This should not come as a surprise. Local and state governments built our roads. Thousands of rural communities gained access to electricity through publicly owned networks.

Thousands of communities today are forced to make a difficult choice when it comes to fast and affordable broadband networks. Our international peers have used smart policies to surpass our broadband networks while Washington has proved unable to keep up. But hundreds of communities across the United States have grown tired of waiting and publicly provide some level of broadband to encourage economic development or educational opportunities.

There are some who argue, as Frank Rizzo recently did in these very pages, that publicly owned broadband systems never succeed. These myths have been encouraged by telecom-funded think tanks for more than a decade, despite having been proved false time and time again.

Mr. Rizzo claimed, "commercial providers generally offer more reliable and faster service." But the fastest networks at the most affordable prices are publicly, not privately owned. In Lafayette, La., the public utility's network offers 10Mbps symmetrical connections for less than $30 a month. In Wilson, N.C., the publicly owned network offers a better triple-play package (phone, TV and Internet) at substantially lower prices than the private provider, Time Warner. Details and more comparisons are available from Municipal Networks and Community Broadband.

Across the country, public networks have succeeded by every metric. They create local jobs by keeping support services local rather than off-shoring it. They keep prices down because they don't have to pay millions to their CEOs. Their shareholders are the community - who can hold the network accountable in ways they never can an out-of-state company.

West Virginia has twice considered a powerful tool that would have encouraged public networks - the Electronic Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Act. In the first consideration, the Legislature killed it. The second time, the bill passed but the governor vetoed it. Meanwhile, the private sector has failed to build these crucial networks: those in West Virginia lucky enough to have access to broadband pay too much for slow speeds.

By contrast, nearby Bristol, Va., confronted the same dilemma but responded differently. Bristol's publicly owned utility built a fiber network throughout southwest Virginia, creating more than a thousand jobs and receiving national recognition as a rural broadband success story.

West Virginia's hopes for a private-sector financed miracle all but disappeared last month when Verizon sold off its local lines to Frontier. Following a similar Verizon divestment last year in New England, the already poor service in those rural communities became even worse - something many thought impossible.

West Virginia's proud tradition of self-reliance will be important as communities meet the challenge of our new information economy. To bring a high-speed information highway to every home and business, West Virginians should learn from the successful efforts of hundreds of cities and towns across this land.

Mitchell is a researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis (newrules.org).

article originally published at Charleston Gazette.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey