Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Protecting investor-owned Internet providers from market failure is bad public policy

This USA Today profile of Lafayette, Louisiana's municipally-operated fiber to the premise network raises significant policy questions as to the proper role of the private and public sectors in providing premise Internet connectivity. It notes Lafayette like other community fiber projects faced significant resistance from private sector telco and cable providers bent on preserving their territorial hegemony even when their business models don't permit them to upgrade their networks to provide robust Internet connections to homes and businesses. The push back comes in the form of lawsuits, public information (or disinformation campaigns, depending on one's perspective) and state legislation barring local governments from building publicly owned and operated telecommunications infrastructure.

It's understandable the incumbent telco and cable companies would want to protect their service territories from competition given that telecommunications infrastructure -- like roads and highways -- tends to be a naturally monopolistic (or at best, duopolistic) market. That kind of market creates a winner takes all situation in which the winners in turn pick winners (those who are provided good Internet service) and losers (premises deemed too costly to serve and left off the Internet grid). Their problem, however, is the losers are naturally getting restless and petitioning for relief such as recently proposed Colorado legislation designed to lay the groundwork for the state to directly serve areas lacking connectivity.

The incumbent telco and cable companies may wish to rethink their current strategy of locking down failed markets and barring the door to public providers. The courts could well cast a jaundiced eye toward such uncompetitive market conduct and state laws designed to preserve what in many areas of the nation have become telecommunications backwaters due to what President Obama described in his January State of the Union address as "incomplete" Internet infrastructure.

I'm not sure those state laws could survive judicial scrutiny in the federal courts as they effectively create a state sanctioned monopoly in telecommunications. But unlike other nations, the state doesn't actually provide the service. Instead, their function is to protect private investor owned providers from the consequences of market failure. That's poor public policy because it leaves too many effectively disconnected from the Internet and the economic, educational and other benefits it affords.

Incumbent providers may also want to considering partnering with communities instead of fighting them. As the USA Today article notes, businesses approached Lafayette about expanding the network throughout the city as a way of drawing businesses. City leaders asked BellSouth and Cox representatives to partner on the project. But they spurned a private-public partnership that could have allowed them to share in the revenues, instead opting for a short sighted win/lose strategy.

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