Public ownership of broadband access is best

by Christopher Mitchell (Institute for Local Self-Reliance), Eureka Reporter

Too many cities in California are stuck with slow (or no) broadband access. As the United States continues to dip in international broadband rankings, individual communities have a choice: build their own broadband network or hope someone else does it for them.

Broadband may be comparatively new, but these difficult questions of infrastructure have been with us for far longer. One hundred years ago, communities were told electricity was too complicated for municipal meddling and they should wait for private companies to electrify them. Thousands of communities realized that a community cannot wait for essential infrastructure. They accepted responsibility for their future and wired their towns. How little has changed since then.

California’s Broadband Task Force has released its final report, complete with maps showing some 2,000 communities without any access at all. Many more communities are underserved, offered an always-on connection faster than dial-up, but not by much.

The Broadband Task Force recognizes the importance of universal broadband access in California. Broadband has already had an impact on education, economic development, public safety and entertainment. It may well revolutionize health care, especially in rural areas.

Unfortunately, the Broadband Task Force has chosen the seductive path of dependence on private providers for these networks. Public ownership is a better plan. Broadband networks are here for the long haul, and our dependence on them will only increase. Many citywide wireless networks are privately owned, depending on city government as an anchor tenant. The network requires city money without offering the city any control. Under such circumstances, owning beats renting.

The Broadband Task Force clearly views public ownership as a last resort, allowing community services districts to offer broadband only when a private provider refuses. Once the CSD has taken the risk and built a functioning network, it must sell it to an interested private provider.

Public ownership should not be a fallback option. Digital Rio Dell, a collaboration with the local community media provider Access Humboldt and the city of Rio Dell, has shown the power of a community-led alternative.

The Broadband Task Force’s first recommendation should have been to encourage every community to evaluate its needs and assets to determine whether it would be best served by investing in a publicly owned network.

Publicly owned networks can be tailored to the present community and upgraded as needs change.

Ownership is about self-determination. Modern telecommunications regulations mean owners make decisions. A city cannot compel a private provider to upgrade the network or mandate network neutrality. Residents have little recourse when the sole private broadband provider blocks some applications or network protocols.

A number of large private providers have managed their networks in a questionable manner. These companies have one goal. The law requires them to maximize their shareholder value. In contrast, a publicly owned network should maximize social benefit. If it does not, residents can change it. Try getting AT&T to modify its network management policies.

Investing in broadband networks is an important decision that should come after developing a strong business plan that identifies how the network will sustain itself. Successful municipal networks across the country offer many different models and technologies. From western Utah to tiny Vermont, they also offer reliable fast speeds at affordable prices in areas long ignored by private companies.

To be clear, publicly owned networks are a boon to many private companies. Local businesses are too often stuck without the fast, affordable access they need. As members of the community, they are important stakeholders in any publicly owned network. A private company can even be contracted to maintain the network, with policies set by the community.

Broadband networks have become essential infrastructure. Depending on a private network may be the easier course of action, but gives away too much power. Network owners make decisions; they do not have to beg providers for faster speeds, lower prices or better customer service.

article originally published at http://newrules.org/info/eurekareporter.html.

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