Trash the national broadband plan

Do you think we need a national broadband Internet policy? If you’re like a lot of readers, the answer is yes.

Typical reasons range from self-interest (“I can’t get broadband Internet connectivity at a price I’d like to pay”) to selflessness (“The underprivileged need broadband to fully participate in the 21st Century economy”).

Since I’ve written several columns opposing the need for a national broadband policy, it might surprise you to hear that I agree on both points. (Well, mostly — if the federal government is obliged to provide goods and services at the price I’d like to pay, where’s my US$20,000 Testarossa?) Seriously, though, I’m a staunch supporter of extending broadband Internet far and wide, particularly to folks who might otherwise not get it.

We agree on the problem, then. Where we differ is on the solution. Nationally mandated broadband is an ineffective, topdown approach. Doubt me? Consider the abysmal track record of the current federal “national connectivity” initiative, the universal service fund, which represents centralized economic planning at its worst.

There are much better solutions to the problem of extending broadband to the masses — such as municipal networks. This was highlighted in a great piece last week by The Wall Street Journal’s Shawn Young, in which he wrote that more than 300 communities around the country have, or are planning, wireless Internet access, with roughly 100 live to date.

These services include free and low-cost access as well as paid connectivity for those seeking alternatives to the traditional telco or cable services. All this without a lick of federal involvement (except from those congresscritters who, believe it or not, awhile back actually proposed making municipal wireless networks illegal).

And the best part is that municipal networks represent a stellar example of the all-American virtue of self-reliance. Instead of taxing citizens in Dallas to pay for services in Detroit, these initiatives let communities care for their own citizens — whether they’re disadvantaged or merely dissatisfied with existing offerings. So if, like me, you believe that government can make a positive difference — here’s your case in point.

Even the telcos are starting to get in on the game, sort of. After initially opposing municipal wireless on the spurious grounds that they constituted unfair competition, AT&T and Verizon figured out that municipal wireless actually represents an opportunity. Instead of competing with municipalities, these providers are offering their infrastructure and expertise to develop services.

Only Qwest still seems er, out of the loop. The story cites an amusing case in which Sandoval County, New Mexico built a Wi-Fi network, then offered local provider Qwest the option of leasing services on the municipal network. Qwest’s response according to the story? “Thanks but no thanks, we’ll stick with DSL.”

And for those who complain they live “too far away” for municipal wireless — the Sandoval County folks have extended Wi-Fi signals to run some 60 miles at a pop.

The bottom line? Forget the feds. For affordable broadband in your neighborhood, contact your local municipality.

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