Saturday, February 24, 2007

Local public/private partnerships are America's best hope to close the digital divide

America's best hope for the rapid, widespread deployment of fiber optic based telecommunications systems that can serve up a "triple play" array of services -- broadband Internet access, voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and full motion interactive video -- lies with local governmental entities such as counties, municipalities and utility districts working in partnership with private telecommunications providers to form open access networks. It's already happening in places like Utah with The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) and in rural Southern Oregon. Smart folks in these places realize they won't likely see fiber deployed in these areas for many more years if they wait on the big telco/cable duopoly, which for business reasons must concentrate on densely populated urban regions. They correctly realize they must take matters into their own hands. As UTOPIA's name suggests, the foundation of the private/public arrangement is the systems open infrastructure as contrasted to the wholly privately owned systems of the telco/cable duopoly. That model allows for creative deal making involving valuable public rights of way and the investments of private sector players.

These kinds of public/private partnerships at the local level must be encouraged and supported. Telcos and cable companies should set aside their need for hegemony over their markets and instead of fighting them, find out how they can help them along. They too can come out winners since these public/private fiber projects put in place proven, state of the art fiber optic technology for them, saving them money while opening up a big pipe for them to reach customers with advanced services they currently cannot offer. They might not have total ownership of the fiber infrastructure that results from these public/private partnerships. But access to fiber sooner rather than much later raises all boats, boats that in too many areas of the U.S. remain stuck in the mud without broadband access.

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