It is inherently dangerous to a democracy for all of its telecommunications infrastructure to be held in the hands of unelected and unaccountable private actors with no obligation to behave in a nondiscriminatory manner. Municipal networks by their nature answer directly to the local community and their policies are subject to scrutiny and modification by public action, if need be at the ballot box. The preservation of a system of mixed public and private ownership of telecommunications infrastructure is essential to maintaining the free flow of information unfettered by the economic interests of dominant private actors. ,
Alex Marshall Examines Electricty / Internet Parallels
“My answer has been, as it is tonight, to point out these plain principles,” Roosevelt told the crowd. “That where a community -- a city or county or a district -- is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up ... its own governmentally owned and operated service.”
While FDR was referring to electricity in 1932, he could easily be speaking about today's critical need for Internet connectivity. Fortunately for a growing number of people in our country, many local leaders share his sentiments and those communities are investing in community owned telecommunications networks.
Government Technology recently reposted a Governing article by Alex Marshall, a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York City. The Director of our Telecommunications work, Christopher Mitchell, tells me he just bought Alex's new book from a local bookstore and has put it at the top of his reading list: The Surprising Design of Market Economies.
Marshall sees fiber optic connectivity as the utility of today and tomorrow. He explores the question of who should provide access - public institutions or the private market? In his research, Marshall finds that many local communities are not waiting for an "official" answer to that question and are taking control of getting their citizens online.
Marshall spoke with Nick Braden from the American Public Power Association (APPA):
“As was the case when America was electrifying a century ago, many unserved or underserved communities are ready, willing and able to take matters into their own hands, if necessary, to deploy the sophisticated broadband communications networks that will enable their communities and America to continue to be a leader in the global economy,” says Braden. “Many have already done so.”
Marshall notes the private sector's intense efforts to stop local public invest and how those efforts have permeated nineteen state legislatures, even contrary to overwhelming evidence of success. While court battles often end in the defendant's favor, when the private sector sues to stop municipalities and loses, the next step is money and lobbyists. Marshall talked to our own Christopher:
Given that the evidence shows that cities could offer better service at better prices than private companies, the logic behind these laws makes little sense. “They are the kind of arguments that can only work when accompanied by an army of lobbyists and large campaign contributions,” says Mitchell.
While the question will, of course, be debated far into the future, Marshall suggests a look back at 1932 for the right approach:
If the politicians falter, they should remember FDR’s words. It’s clear that fiber networks are a natural monopoly and need to be either run directly by the government, or so heavily regulated that it amounts to the same thing.