Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sometimes You Need To Beat The Market With A Stick

An excellent piece on the sorry state of broadband access in the US, at Washington Monthly:
The dispute over municipal broadband bears a striking similarity to the development of the electric power industry a century ago. As James Baller—an attorney who represents local governments and public utilities—first warned in a 1994 paper written for the American Public Power Association: “The history of the electric power industry casts substantial doubt on the notion that our nation can depend on competition among cable and telephone companies alone... to ensure not only prompt and affordable, but also universal, access to the benefits of the information superhighway.”...

But the expansion of electricity, Baller argued, showed that the presence—or even threat—of competition from the public sector is one of the surest ways to secure quality service and reasonable prices from private enterprises delivering critical public services. FDR, he notes, called municipal power systems “a birch rod in the cupboard, to be taken out and used only when the child gets beyond the point where more scolding does any good.”
There's a reason why American companies are trying their damnedest to undermine Canadian health care - they can't compete against it. Not because it's unfair, but because it's better, period. Same goes for the Internet, electricity, and any number of other public services. The government can provide them best, but we keep selling out to the private market.

Spectrum policy is one of those things I have a periodic interest in, and I really reccomend the New America Foundation for this stuff. They've been on the case for years now, advocating that we let unlicensed internet service on unoccupied areas of the radio spectrum. This would make cheap, fast broadband quickly available.

But it may never happen in Canada. Rogers and Bell together have more than enough power in politics and the market to kill any public wi-fi project. They've announced plans to build their own, but even if they do (and that's questionable) it'll likely cost us four times too much for less speed than we could have with a public system.

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