Saturday, April 15, 2017

USTelecom is right -- and wrong -- on public telecom infrastructure

Survey: Most Americans cities to build, sell Internet plans: Proponents of independent Internet networks argue that a "public option" for Internet access could help drive down the price of broadband and increase speeds. Opponents say the expense of building new networks represents an unacceptable financial risk for many local governments. "Municipal broadband networks too often end up failing and costing taxpayers millions," said USTelecom, a trade association representing Internet providers and telecom companies.

USTelecom is right. Modernizing telecommunications infrastructure rapidly enough to meet the nation's needs in an era of Internet protocol-based services will indeed cost tax dollars. It simply has to because infrastructure costs billions to build. That high price is not compatible with the short term business models of private investor owned legacy telephone and cable companies. That's why they're confined to piecemeal build outs and bandwidth rationing that leave many existing and putative customers in their service territories unserved and undeserved and complaining about lousy, poor value service. Even conservatives are waking up to the fact of this market failure, recognizing that market forces don't work well when it comes to high cost infrastructure. And it's about time.

USTelecom is also correct that local governments face significant financial risk due to the large sums involved. That's why I propose in my eBook Service Unavailable: America’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis a federal "public option" since only the federal government -- and not state and local government -- can shoulder the burden.

Where USTelecom as well as those who support local government telecom infrastructure modernization projects are wrong is claiming these projects represent market competition with legacy incumbent telephone and cable companies. They do not and cannot. Local governments are responding to market failure, not any desire to compete in the telecommunications industry. They are looking to meet their needs to support economic development in the digital economy and address their citizens' complaints about crappy service from the incumbents. That situation has occurred because telecommunications infrastructure by definition is a natural monopoly and not a competitive market characterized by many sellers and buyers. Thus market forces fail, too weak to provide incentive for incumbent telephone and cable companies to provide better service.

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