New York Law School authors Davidson and Santorelli in their March 2013 research, Evaluating the Rationales for Government-Owned Broadband Networks, looked at five common rationales offered by municipal broadband advocates for government ownership and entry broadband service delivery. In this post we look at their fifth and final, “the local self-reliance rationale.”
This rationale goes something like this,
…municipalities should have the freedom to do what they want…[reflecting] a desire for ‘humanly scaled institutions and economies and the widest possible distribution of ownership.’ …communities ‘make better and more informed policies when those who design those policies are those who feel their impact.’
Local self-reliance advocates both abhor and ignore their own arguments for local control. On the one hand they argue against what they perceive to be a monopoly hold on their communities by private providers (let’s overlook for a moment that few communities go unserved by multiple private providers — in Washington State Comcast, Wave, Charter, CenturyLink, Frontier, Dish, ATT Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile, Clearwire, for example) over an often redundant array of technology platforms (coaxial cable, fiber, DSL/wireline, wireless, cellular, satellite).
At the same time advocates — harking back almost a century to the height of the New Deal — hold out their nearly sacred symbol of rural electrification, presumably believing that listeners will suspend judgment and forget that rural electrification required monopoly provision in order to succeed.
So, what self-reliance advocates really want is for local communities to exchange private firms — shareholder-financed, heavily taxed, highly regulated, staffed by proven and highly paid technology experts…firms with built-in incentives to succeed and grow — for local political organizations run by elected officials, whose analysis, decision-making and agency administration must ultimately be overseen by local residents — and this last, accomplished by said residents by attending meetings and reviewing proposals after they get home from work, get dinner on the table, and get their kids settled into their homework.
The authors point out that this argument also dismisses that fact that local government — cities, counties, public utilities districts and the like — are “ultimately the responsibility of the state.”
The nature and depth of this relationship came into sharp focus during the recent recession when a number of towns and cities went into or teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. To remove any sort of state oversight from the GONs [government-owned network] equation is to advocate for a fundamental recalibration of government in the United States.
The federal act that put much of this current movement into action — the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — anticipated this issue:
In addition the Act specifically empowers the states to ‘preempt’ municipalities from engaging in the deployment of communications networks.
Nineteen states, including Washington, have so far acted to limit local government broadband provision. The authors conclude that despite advocacy arguments for another way,
…in light of the borderless nature of the broadband ecosystem and the increasing need for national regulatory approaches to IP-enabled services, the self-reliance rationale in favor of GONs is ill-suited for modern America.