Opponents of municipal broadband initiatives contend that public broadband projects are “failures” if they do generate “profits” in the amounts, and within the short time periods, that investors and the financial community expect of private corporations. To define success this way is to miss two fundamental points: (1) public entities have fundamentally different ways of creating economic benefits for the community than the private sector; and (2) municipalities often undertake a public communications initiative precisely because the project would not be profitable enough for a private company.
In Broadband Networks, Private Ownership Leads to Consolidation
In all the talk of the need for competition in broadband (or in the mobile space), there is remarkably little attention paid to the difficulties in actually creating competition. A common refrain from the self-interested industry titans (and their many paid flacks) is: "keep the government out of it and let the market decide."
Unfortunately, an unregulated market in telecom tends toward consolidation at best, monopolization at worse. Practicioners of Chicago economics may dispute this, but their theories occur in reality about as frequently as unicorn observations. In our regulatory environment, big incumbents have nearly all the advantages, allowing them to use their advantages of scale to maintain market power (most notably the ability to use cross-subsidization from non-competitive markets to maintain predatory pricing wherever they face even the threat of competition).
The de-regulatory approach of telecom policy over the past 10 or more years has resulted in far less competition among ISPs, something Earthlink hopes to change with a condition of the seeming inevitable NBC-Comcast merger. Requiring incumbents to share their lines with independent ISPs is one policy that would greatly increase competition - but the FCC has refused to even entertain the notion because big companies like AT&T and Comcast are too intimidating for the current Administration to confront.
In the Midwest, Windstream is cutting 146 jobs as part of its acquisition of Iowa Telecom. When these companies consolidate, they can cut jobs to lower their costs... but do subscribers ever see the savings? Not hardly. The result is less competition, which leads to higher prices. Consider that Comcast is the largest cable company, but they are known better for their poor record of customer service than low prices enabled by economies of scale.
We need broadband networks that are structurally accountable to the community, not private shareholders located far outside the community. The solution is not more private companies owning broadband infrastructure, but more private companies offering competing services over next-generation infrastructure that is community owned by coops, non-profits, or local governments.
Photo by therichbrooks on Flickr - used under Creative Commons license.