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January 31st, 2012 3:15 pm
Protecting Taxpayers from Public Broadband Boondoggles
Posted by Print

In today’s world of crushing deficits and bureaucratic overreach, government has no business venturing into the world of operating communications networks.  That sort of adventurism merely competes with private investment dollars and creates even more debt for which struggling taxpayers are ultimately liable.

Broadband expansion itself is obviously a good thing, but the history of public broadband is simply one of failure.  The city of Marietta, Georgia provides just another example.

In 1996, Marietta entered the marketplace as an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Predictably, the city struggled to keep pace with rapidly-changing technology and developments in the broadband arena. Eight years later, the city realized the effort was lost, so it sold its broadband network, FiberNet, for $11.2 million.  Unfortunately, that boondoggle meant a huge loss for Marietta taxpayers: the city had sunk $35 million into FiberNet before unloading it.

Marietta’s experience is far from isolated.  As I pointed out in testimony last year to the North Carolina legislature, from Taiwan to Sydney and Houston, Texas to Burlington, Vermont, recent history is rife with public broadband network failures.  North Carolina lawmakers wisely approved legislation placing additional requirements on cities and municipalities entering the broadband market.  Elsewhere, however, government-owned networks (GONs) continue to place taxpayers at great risk, stifling private sector investment and job creation and paradoxically causing fewer Americans to have access to broadband.

Because they are at such risk of failure, GONs also receive tax and regulatory advantages by the governments that ultimately build and operate them.  That is not only unfair, it’s highly destructive.  It discourages private owners from expanding their networks and bringing jobs to an area.  Furthermore, GONs have a particularly damaging effect on rural broadband access.  After all, private investors are less likely to risk precious capital in areas where they will have to compete directly with the government, not to mention compete on a tilted playing field.  That leaves consumers with fewer choices – the public network – for broadband.  And when the public network fails like the one in Marietta did – and like most do – these consumers are left with a big bill and diminished broadband.

Fortunately, some leaders recognize the problem and take action.  Georgia State Senator Chip Rogers  recently introduced legislation (SB 313) that would make Georgia cities and politicians answer the tough questions before betting millions of taxpayer dollars on costly broadband networks.  The legislation would require cities and municipalities to hold hearings on proposed GONs, and then put their plans to an actual vote.  Those requirements seem more than fair considering that public broadband networks have failed virtually everywhere they’ve been attempted.  Indeed, taxpayers and consumers would be best served if cities and municipalities stayed out of the broadband market altogether.  Nonetheless, we applaud Sen. Rogers and call on his colleagues to swiftly pass the legislation he has introduced.

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