Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A study in contrasts: community broadband, with and without

I've become a big fan of muninetworks.org for my community broadband news. They are part of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and they have done a great job documenting the benefits of community broadband. Their site is chock-full of useful information that can support a debate in favor of community broadband, even with the most determined detractors.

Two recent stories on that website offer a great study in contrast of life with and without community broadband. It is instructive to see that private monopolies are less efficient and less responsive than government monopolies can be. The difference, I think is in the attitude, not whether or not the entities are private or public. The public network says "I will serve everyone in my service area, no matter what." The private network says "I get to pick and choose based on profit incentives." Let's have a look at two different cases.

First there is the community that had to go without, the poor town of Cleveland, Tennessee. They are right at the edge of the EPB service area surrounding Chattanooga - tantalizingly close to one of the fastest ISPs in the country. The EPB offers gigabit service to anyone in their service area - it's reliable, lightning fast, and customers are very happy. But they can't extend their service to anyone who wants it because a state law prohibits the EPB from doing so. That law was written and pushed through the legislature by the cable and telephone companies.

The businesses in Cleveland suffer from inconsistent and slow service with customer service to match. They want alternatives to what they have, but the legislature, in the pockets of incumbent carriers, refuse to allow the EPB to expand their service area. The argument? Private companies should not have to compete against the government. But the incumbent carier, AT&T, refuses to serve everyone and relegates their customers in Cleveland to dial-up service. Dial-up! You know, with a phone line modem. That is so 1990s! Here we see that AT&T has betrayed the public trust by refusing to serve *everyone* with modern internet access through their private monopoly.

On the other hand, there are communities that have embraced community broadband, like Lafayette, Louisiana. Lafayette has built a community-own, 100% fiber network to everyone in their service area. That network is now paying dividends as three businesses have moved there, creating 1300 good-paying jobs. The attraction? Gigabit internet service, reliable, fast, and very reasonably priced at $70 a month.

Lafayette residents and businesses alike are very happy with their service. They now have an internet service provider that doesn't answer to big-shot executives in New York City or shareholders happy to pounce on every penny of profit. LUS Fiber answers to the community they serve and they understand what the term "public trust" means. They serve everyone because they know that the more they serve, the better life is for everyone.

This is the difference between public and private internet service. Private internet service providers will put profit before service. They are content to let customers languish if there is no alternative. They have no compunction about betraying the public trust of the franchise they were granted. Yet, they guard their private monopoly jealously with lavish contributions to the legislators that serve them well.

Community broadband is here to serve everyone in their service area so that everyone is a winner. They understand how important the public trust is to them, so customer service is the highest priority. They are more focused on the service than the money. They answer to citizens in homes and businesses throughout their service area, and they are responsive to community needs.

So what would you rather have? A private monopoly that will pick winners and losers or a community utility that serves everyone? I think the choice is obvious to most of us, but to legislators encumbered by the acceptance of corporate money, maybe not so much.
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