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April 24, 2009 10:39 AM

No State Can Afford To Outlaw Municipal Broadband

While not a new trend, recently there's been a relative explosion in efforts at state legislatures across the country to introduce legislation that will impede or outlaw municipal broadband projects.

I'm here to say outright that no state can afford to embark on any effort to stop municipal broadband.

My reasoning is simple: we face too big a challenge in wiring our country to force any players to the sidelines.

Imagine if we'd left the building of roads or electric lines purely to the private sector. How much longer would it have taken to get the job done? This is particularly true in less economically attractive areas, like rural communities and the urban poor.

In tackling the challenge of getting every last American connected to the best possible broadband, outlawing municipal broadband will force us to fight with one hand behind our back.

And it's important to note that one key commonality between every country currently considered a world leader in the availability of broadband is that government played a strong, active role in the deployment of networks. So taking the option of municipal networks off the table puts us at a disadvantage in the global economy.

This all being said, I completely understand why private operators would want to quash all municipal broadband efforts. If I ran an incumbent network I wouldn't want government coming in, overbuilding my market, and competing with me. I'd look at the many advantages a government-run network has and feel like not only is this a new competitor but that they're not operating on a level playing field with me.

And I'm a strong supporter of privately owned and operated networks. Whenever possible if the market can drive a continuous cycle of investment to support the best broadband, I'm all for that.

But to ignore the reality that in many markets competition is not driving this investment in the best broadband--and not just in rural but also urban and even some suburban areas too--is a dangerous thing to do as it sets the stage for these communities to be permanently left behind in the digital revolution.

In some areas, the only way they're going to get the best broadband is through a locally-driven municipal effort. Without the ability to build their own networks, these communities will never be able to compete with neighboring cities and their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

Because of this I firmly believe that any state that outlaws or significantly impedes municipal broadband efforts is making the wrong decision by taking the fate of their future competitiveness in the digital economy out of their hands. Any state saying no to municipal broadband is also likely saying no to the possibility of every one of its citizens ever getting equal affordable access to the best broadband.

And if private providers care about anything beyond their own bottom line, if the future of the country that's supported their growth matters at all to them, they will back off from these efforts to ban municipal broadband. Instead I'd rather see them expending their energy upgrading their networks and improving their services.

If they want to stave off government-sponsored competition then all they need to do is deliver the kind of connectivity communities are demanding. There are hardly any municipal broadband initiatives in places that already have a private full fiber network. So get the networks people want deployed and you can head off municipal competition at the pass.

And if private providers are going to focus on anything legislatively I'd encourage them to instead advocate for municipal networks to be built in an open way so that private providers can offer their services over them. I'm not saying we should be mandating the wholesale-only model as it hasn't been proven to work as of yet. But if I'm an incumbent provider I'd welcome a municipality building a cutting edge fiber network that I can run on as it saves me a huge amount of capital costs that instead of putting into the ground I can invest in developing new services that take advantage of the capacity of fiber.

So while I can understand where private providers are coming from, I believe strongly that it's irresponsible for any state to seriously consider outlawing or impeding municipal broadband. The challenges we face are too great to leave anyone who can help solve them on the sidelines.

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Comments (1)

What I find a little un-settling is how little interest there is in mainstream media to cover these legislative efforts. During the early muni wireless days, it seems there was a lot of noise about the incumbents' efforts. Of course, the Philly-Verizon rumble made for good drama. But I think people need to start pressing their local papers in the states with these pending laws, and force editors to address this issue.

Posted by Craig Settles on April 24, 2009 6:05 PM

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