A short time ago, to much less fanfare, Comcast decided to stop providing free telecommunications services to many police and fire stations in communities around Michigan. Earlier this summer, Comcast closed the East Lansing public access studio.
Michigan is reaping the fruits of dependence, and monopoly. To paraphrase an old truism, he who owns the network calls the shots. Comcast manages its network for its shareholders, not you. That is why the people of Michigan must insist that the communities themselves own the next generation of fiber-based information networks.
Hundreds of cities across the country have already done so. They do not have to depend on Comcast’s continued goodwill to keep the schools connected or all the local football games on their TVs. None with whom we have spoken, even given the inevitable bumps and bruises that occurred in the start-up stage, wishes it had made a different decision.
A publicly owned network is good for city budgets. Unlike most public infrastructure projects, information highways are profitable. And this is a highway whose major user may well be the local government and local non-profits. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, the only thing certain for local governments is growing telecom expenditures and shrinking aid from the state. City communications expenditures can, and should, play a significant role in financing the new network. Why rent when you can own?
Lansing knows the power of ownership. The Board of Water & Light provides power at costs below private utilities in Michigan while being responsive to the community. The lessons of electrification should guide us today.
Burlington, Vt., population 39,000, will complete a fiber-to-the-home citywide network by early in 2008. Already 30 percent of the homes that are connected are subscribing —paying less for fast internet access, voice services, and cable television. The new city agency, Burlington Telecom, expects to be able to generate some 20 percent of the city’s general fund once the network is paid off.
Though the United States as a whole has dropped behind many other developed nations in access to fast broadband, cities that invest in these networks remain globally competitive because they can offer both businesses and residents faster speeds at lower prices than most American cities. Building a vast fiber network in Lafayette, La., landed the city a call center with 1,000 jobs with benefits.
Cedar Falls, Iowa, offers another good example. In 1996, the city of 36,000 people started building a universal fiber/cable network. Not only is this network on track to retire its debt five years early, it has attracted businesses from all over the Midwest to northern Iowa. Its next-door neighbor, Waterloo, has watched as companies moved across the metro area to the land of plentiful bandwidth.
Oh yes. One more thing. The Cedar Falls network will be carrying the new Big Ten network on expanded cable. The locally owned network knows how important Hawkeye football and basketball are to the community.
Whether you are more concerned about sports, economic development, or fiscal responsibility, publicly owned broadband infrastructure is the best bet. It guarantees a fast and affordable network rather than hoping private companies will find it profitable to provide this essential infrastructure.