In the information age, broadband is a critical service. As would be expected in the United States, there are many people who lack this service. In some cases, it is a matter of money, but in other cases it is due to a lack of providers. Ohio, where I went to college, has a serious access problem. About one million Ohioans simply do not have access to broadband and many areas that do have it face slow speeds and unreliable connections. Other states face similar challenges, and the problems tend to be worst in rural and low population areas.
One of the main reasons for the lack of access is that for-profit providers have little interest in providing services in such areas. After all, this would require investing in infrastructure—something they are generally loath to do. To be fair to them, they are in the business of making money for their shareholders and executives, expanding into these areas would not serve this goal very well. Those who take a dim view of such providers (which is probably most people) might think that they also derive some pleasure in denying people service—that the cruelty is the point.
The obvious solution (and one that has often been proposed) is for municipalities to step in and provide such services to the citizens. On the face of it, you would think that there would be little or no opposition to this. Those living in these underserved areas generally want broadband and the for-profit companies have no interest in selling their services there—hence they would not be losing any business. But if you think this, then you would be wrong.
Ohio, as noted above, suffers from a lack of broadband access. The state has been considering expanding broadband access but, as one would expect, the Republican controlled legislature seems interested in preventing this—although some other Republicans are on board. There is currently a law being proposed that would band municipal broadband services and efforts are underway to defund broadband expansion plans. This approach is not unique to Ohio and as of this writing there are 18 states that restrict municipal broadband as a matter of law. Republicans in congress have also proposed a nationwide ban on municipal broadband.
Republicans, as one might recall, profess to favor local control, claim to be the party of small government and purport to loath federal overreach. Those familiar with how the party operates will, of course, know that these claims are often made in bad faith: Republicans are clearly fine with usurping local control, growing the government, and expanding federal power when they want to do such things. When they do not want the state to do something, then they suddenly remember these principles. But perhaps they do have a principled way to defend using the coercive power of the state to overreach its power onto local governments.
Republicans also profess to love the free market and competition—they even claim to especially love the free market of ideas. In the case of municipal broadband, the argument would seem to be that banning municipal broadband would allow for the competition they claim results in better products and services at lower prices. You know, the classic laissez faire argument. In the abstract, this argument has some appeal. In reality, it is often made in bad faith.
I do agree that competition in the area of broadband could be good for customers; but the reality is that it is a field dominated by monopolies and oligarchies—ones that are often enabled and preserved by the force of law and regulation. This is done, obviously enough, at the behest of the corporate lobbyists who now write most laws at all levels of government. Somewhat ironically, allowing municipal broadband would allow for competition—the existing monopolies could face, for the first time, meaningful competition. Something they do not want and fight hard to prevent. As such, the competition argument against municipal broadband is generally a bad one in most circumstances: allowing it would generally add competition to the existing monopolies and oligopolies.
One can also make the somewhat ironic argument that makes use of another stock conservative argument. When arguing against the state doing things, conservatives often claim that the private (for profit) sector will be better. The usual claims are that the state will do things badly and at high cost. In contrast, the for-profit operation will do things much better and at a lower cost—while also managing to turn a profit. Sometimes this happens to be true; but reality shows that there is no necessary causation at work here. For-profit companies can deliver bad products and services at high cost (like many broadband companies do), while the public sector can do a good job. But now to the ironic bit.
If one accepts that for-profit companies will do a better job than the public sector, then there is no need to ban municipal broadband. The market will, according to the conservatives, sort itself out: people will choose the superior and lower cost product and conservatives claim that this will always be the private sector product. One would, of course, need to prevent the municipal broadband from being a legal monopoly and the private sector would need to be protected from unfair laws that would hurt their ability to compete. But if conservatives are right, then the private companies should easily win any fair competition.
One could argue that the municipal broadband would always have an edge: being able to rely on public funding would mean that it could offer lower cost services and people would choose that over the for-profit broadband. This, obviously, assumes that the savings would offset whatever superior features the for-profit broadband offered. But this would seem to be a market victory: the best product for the price would win. If the municipality offered a much lower cost but had a terrible product relative to the for-profit broadband, then people would presumably go for the better service and pay the higher price. If they could not afford this price, then the for-profit company would not be losing any customers—those people would not buy the service even if there was no municipal broadband. In that case, people who could not afford the better service would at least have some service—which would seem to be a win for everyone. To pre-empt the obvious straw man attack, I am describing a situation where the municipal broadband is available as an option, but there is open competition—for example, there are no special burdensome regulations or financial burdens imposed on the private sector just to hurt them relative to the municipal option.
As a final point, municipal broadband is most often proposed in areas where the for-profit companies have no interest in providing services (or people cannot afford these services). As such, the main purpose of the sort of law being proposed in Ohio would seem to be to prevent people from getting broadband access. Creating a law that does nothing but hurt people seems like a terrible idea.
Anne W LaBossiere says
I live in an area that does not currently have access to broadband. This was an interesting article. I do hope that our circumstances change. Mike hit the nail on the head with his explanations as to why this continues to be problem for those living in rural and low population areas of our states whether they be Ohio or Maine.