Public ownership is the answer

Publicly owned broadband would be the equivalent of our network of highways.

In its Jan. 31 editorial “Keep network neutrality” the Daily missed a major opportunity to speak out about Minneapolis’ plan for a privately owned citywide wireless network. Students, small companies and struggling startups will be hurt if telephone and cable companies start charging content providers. But the solution is not, as the editorial suggests, to ask Congress to impose regulations enforcing network neutrality. The solution is to build publicly owned, open access networks as an alternative to the private, proprietary networks on which we currently rely.

The government owns and maintains the roads, but it does not operate trucking companies. A mom-and-pop trucking company with a single truck and an international freight operation with a fleet of thousands have equal access to our roads. They compete on price and quality of service. Bandwidth on a publicly owned network would be available to all service providers at the same rate. Open access creates competition among Internet service providers, virtually ensuring that network neutrality requirements are not needed. If any service provider placed unreasonable restrictions on Internet usage, customers could simply choose a different provider.

Competition among Internet service providers is limited. This is because phone and cable companies have fought open access requirements. Many local governments have required, as part of their franchise agreements, that cable companies allow competing companies to provide Internet access over their cable networks. The Federal Communications Commission not only took the cable industry’s side, it went further; later this year, it will eliminate its existing open access requirements for the phone companies’ high-speed networks.

Verizon, AT&T and other companies have made it clear they will fight any attempt to write network neutrality into law. They want to maximize revenue from their networks ” not by offering faster or more affordable connections, but by charging you for what you do with your connection. For example, they might offer one rate to download video created by their company (or subsidiaries), a higher rate to download video from an independent filmmaker and an even higher rate to post your own video for others to download.

Since the cable and phone duopoly provide 98 percent of the high-speed Internet connections in the United States, they face no competition from companies that simply want to sell a fast Internet connection to use as one pleases.

A publicly owned broadband network would not be a monopoly. Customers could still choose to continue to use the incumbent phone or cable company’s pipes, but they would have that choice. The smart money is on people gravitating toward publicly owned pipes, which allow them to choose how they use the Internet. This is why the incumbent phone and cable companies oppose municipal broadband. In Chaska, St. Louis Park, Moorhead and other cities that have chosen public ownership, residents and business owners can rest assured that no matter what restrictions are placed on the use of phone and cable lines to their homes, there is a third connection ” a wireless connection ” that is neutral to content and competitively priced.Minneapolis has chosen to allow a private company to own its network. It will have to rely on the good will of the private company granted the city’s wireless franchise, which is, at best, a chancy proposition. Minnesota cities have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a competitive local market for broadband by building publicly owned networks. They should not waste it.

Becca Vargo Daggett is the director of the Municipal Telecommunications Project for Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Please send comments to [email protected]