The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has just published a new report called “Localizing the Internet: Five Ways Public Ownership Solves the U.S. Broadband Problem,” arguing for municipal ownership of new wireless and fiber optic networks.
The argument is persuasive. There is clearly a need for more aggressive public involvement in broadband depoloyment and the affordability of wireless is a great opportunity for that. Giving this opportunity over to private corporations is double the loss.
As Becca shows, the potential financial payoff from public ownership is substantial. The report only implies that there are additional paybacks from general economic development and “secondary effects.” And it makes no mention of digital inclusion or the other potential social benefits, even though those form at least as compelling an argument for government involvement, especially in low-income areas.
There is a section called “Public ownership ensures universal access.” It’s true in theory, but it does suggest a level of faith in government that I don’t share. “Publicly owned road, water and sewer, and sidewalk networks connect all households without discrimination. All have access to the same services,” the report says.
In Philly and New York, and probably many other cities, different neighborhoods get very different levels of service – from their trash collection, road repair, police protection, schools, etc. – mostly based on wealth and income. I don’t know whether a government agency or a private business bound by a service level agreement (SLA) is more likely to provide service evenly across the city. Somebody’s still got to enforce that SLA; at least in Philly, that seems like a long shot if you look at the Comcast example.
Different models are probably appropriate for different places. There are mechanisms for holding governments, corporations, and non-profits accountable, and accountability is really the key.
That was why I was ready to accept the idea of an Earthlink-owned network in Philadelphia. Given its track record, I don’t trust the city government to get the job done and I thought Wireless Philadelphia could be a good mechanism to hold Earthlink to account. But the gutting of the advisory board process and the narrowing of the WP mission have left that in doubt.
We’re now seeing the real effects of the city’s abandonment of the plan originally laid out in the WP business plan, which was to have the non-profit own the network and offer wholesale access to a variety of ISPs. Now we’ve got all of the drawbacks of a non-profit intermediary (more bureaucracy, less accountability, more overhead) and none of the benefits of ownership (which Becca lays out in great detail in the report).