Maybe the Government Belongs in the Broadband Business

It’s been an uneven few weeks for tech policy in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission opened the door to “fast lanes” on the Internet, widely seen as a hole below the waterline for the venerable SS Net Neutrality. More recently, the US Supreme Court declared on Wednesday that Aereo, a company whose entire business model amounted to being too cute by half, was in fact too cute by half. Aereo had been using a (strong-ish) argument that it was within the letter of US intellectual property law while streaming TV over the Internet even if nobody really believed it was anything but on the fringes of the law’s spirit.

So the Supreme Court slapped Aereo down, and a cursory Googling will call up any number of arguments about why this decision was terrible and the Supreme Court has crippled the United States’ Internet economy once again, just like it did in 2001 with the Napster ruling or 2003’s Eldred v. Ashcroft. And yet, the Internet persists. The incorrigible degenerates among you probably still know how to find free music, movies, television and (ahem) books, too.

It turns out that the Internet has a pretty strong record of keeping the firehose of goodies open for people who desire it—much stronger than the record of people trying to restrict it.

So it’s actually more interesting—to me, anyway—that the Chair of the FCC is a fan of cities operating their own broadband providers. When he’s not refuting accusations of being a dingo, Tom Wheeler is saying that the federal government should use its authority as the primary regulator to invalidate the bans that a number of states have passed on cities building their own broadband networks (variously called “muni broadband” or, if they’re specifically fiber networks, just “muni fiber”).

To various right-wing mouthpieces, muni fiber is the next best thing to the command economy. The fact that some of the experiments in the US have foundered on the rocks of finance is seen as an object lesson in why the state shouldn’t get into the business of business. Never mind that plenty of other, private, better-capitalized fiber ventures have had a hard time making money off the fiber business.

Never mind, also, that the state bans on muni fiber are among the most egregious examples of democracy being bought and paid for by the fine constituencies of Comcast and AT&T.

There is, in fact, a long history of municipalities moving into spheres that the private market was either serving poorly (such as early electricity systems) or in which it was simply nonexistent. The phenomenon of cities and towns chasing muni fiber projects is not recognizably different from cities moving into garbage collection, or (in a later age) tightly regulating the rollout of cable television to ensure everyone had access.

There are things the government should stay out of. (Unless they want to pay me directly, in which case I’m willing to be open-minded.) But there are also plenty of areas where the supremacy of the state is a settled issue. We accept the basic ideas that the state should own the roads, the water pipes, and should either own or remain in firm control of the wires bringing electricity to our homes.

The reason is simple: as a rule, you don’t exploit yourself. People buy homes in part so they don’t have to spend their days wondering if the landlord is screwing them over. In the same vein, the long history of public ownership of major infrastructure is a story of using the most direct form of regulation—ownership—to protect consumers.

Seeing the FCC open its mind to muni fiber projects is welcome, but it’s also incremental and small. A major initiative to really break the monopoly power of companies such as Verizon and Comcast would look more like the project Australia had under the previous Labour government, with ambitions to bring publicly owned, open-access broadband to 93 percent of the country’s homes by 2021.

The US (and Canada) are a long way from thinking that big. Given the power of major telecom incumbents in both countries, the smart bet is that no government north of the Rio Grande will ever try Which is a shame, because this is one of those cases where public infrastructure can actually foster competition—like with electricity, the government just owns the wires, not what you do with them. But because of with whom we’d be competing (why hello, Bell), Canada will continue to be a decidedly middling achiever in global broadband speeds and access.

Then again, there are days where “decidedly middling achiever” could be put on our money right below the Queen.

Image via Robert Ashworth/Flickr