Remembering the Rule

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Article from Issue 208/2018
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The recent action by the US Federal Communications Commission to reverse previous policy and rescind net neutrality received lots of attention. Of course the geeks didn't like it, but a sizable majority of ordinary citizens didn't like it much either.

Dear Reader,

The recent action by the US Federal Communications Commission to reverse previous policy and rescind net neutrality received lots of attention. Of course the geeks didn't like it, but a sizable majority of ordinary citizens didn't like it much either. In fact, many wondered who did like it, aside from broadband service providers and those who believe the way to help America succeed is to yield to the wishes of broadband service providers. If you follow the high tech news, you know that much has already been written on this decision – including in this magazine, so I won't dwell on it for long.

What I really want to mention is a report from researchers at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, at Harvard University. The authors studied 40 community-owned ISPs and compared them to similar plans offered by commercial providers. The result was that municipal broadband providers typically charged less and offered more transparent pricing, with fewer gimmicks.

This might seem obvious – why wouldn't governments, who just want to break even, be able to provide Internet service for less than businesses, who are trying to make a profit? Plausible as this may seem, the USA runs on a deeply held conviction that businesses do things more efficiently than governments.

Unfortunately, as illuminating as this study on municipal broadband might seem, it does not totally resolve the business vs. government (capitalism vs. socialism) ideological divide. The capitalists would readily argue that business is better because it promotes competition. In some cases, they are probably correct, based on time-honored rules learned in business school and the tendency of governments to move lumberingly. But the fact is, there isn't much real competition in the broadband ISP market, so broadband isn't a very good example of a free market.

The gulf between these sweeping ideological viewpoints has led to the present state of dysfunction. One party gets in power and imposes net neutrality. The other party gets in and eliminates it. The next time the power structure in Washington shifts, the net neutrality pendulum will swing back again – unless Congress does something about it first, and (the truth be told) Congress really doesn't do very much.

So instead of working to solve the problem at a national or international level, with broad-reaching policy decisions by government-appointed czars and kingpins, the other approach is to just act locally, within your own community, and support municipal broadband.

Most municipal broadband systems are funded through bonds and do not receive direct government subsidies. They function very much like companies, but the difference is: The customers and the shareholders are the same people. They don't face the weird dilemma that broadband companies must face, where the customers and the shareholders are different people, and the best way to return value for the shareholders is to yank around the customers, which is basically what is happening with the end of net neutrality.

Acting locally is often a more reliable way of affecting public debate. You might not have a chance against an army of lobbyists in your national capital, but at your local city hall, the field really is a little closer to level. And if enough small towns and cities take up the challenge of providing their own Internet service so they can get it their own way, the commercial Internet providers might just wake up one day and remember another rule they probably learned in business school. "Oh yeah…the customer is always right."

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

Infos

  1. City-Owned Internet Services Offer Cheaper and More Transparent Pricing: https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2018/01/city-owned-internet-services-offer-cheaper-and-more-transparent-pricing/

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