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High-Speed Broadband: The Public-Private Debate

GRAPHIC: A map showing the variety of ways and locations local governments have invested in wired telecommunications networks. Advocates say communities and nonprofits offer competition to private-sector cable and fiber-optic companies. Photo credit: Community Broadband Networks.
GRAPHIC: A map showing the variety of ways and locations local governments have invested in wired telecommunications networks. Advocates say communities and nonprofits offer competition to private-sector cable and fiber-optic companies. Photo credit: Community Broadband Networks.
July 7, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. - Kentucky is one of 31 states with no barriers to the creation of municipally-run or nonprofit broadband networks. Bardstown, Murray and Frankfort are among communities in the state that have some form of publicly owned Internet service. But others face big hurdles.

Christopher Mitchell directs the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He said consumer choice is at the heart of community broadband networks.

"Fundamentally, there's a lack of competition," said Mitchell. "The reason that cities step into this space is because we don't believe the private sector is capable of resolving that lack of competition on its own."

Some cities and local governments have had difficulty keeping the community Internet provider model alive. Libertarians and conservatives often say government should not be involved providing Internet service.

Ryan Radia, associate director of technology studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said Pew Research statistics show 1 in 4 Americans do not want broadband access at home.

"A non-trivial portion of Americans," said Radia, "especially in some of the cities where we see these networks, don't value broadband. I'm troubled by the idea of the government providing it."

Mitchell argued that community broadband networks are important because they go up against a handful of companies with a stranglehold on the business.

He said he would have a difficult time competing with Comcast to provide Internet access in his hometown of St. Paul, Minn.

"I'd need to raise about $200 million probably to build a network that would compete with them," Mitchell said. "As soon as I did that, Comcast would cut its rates significantly. And people, being very price-sensitive, would decide not to go with my new, faster, better service."

He added that community networks are often demonized by big cable and telephone companies for 'failing' when they don't create profits in the first 3 years. But few would demand that local governments turn a profit on roads they manage within 3 years of building them.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY