Saturday, July 19, 2014

An alternative to Comcast: Government Internet service

Posted By on Sat, Jul 19, 2014 at 7:04 AM

click to enlarge IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE? Chattanooga has found a way.
  • IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE? Chattanooga has found a way.
I've mentioned this before but David Sirota's article in Salon bears still more attention

The Chattanooga public utility, EPB, powered in part by federal stimulus money, has installed lightning fast Internet service. It's profitable for the utility and a huge benefit to customers, who are getting better, cheaper service than competitors such as Comcast provide. It wants to expand to surrounding territory.

The telecomm lobby — which you'd expect normally would hate government regulation and intervention — is begging the government to intervene and stop this dastardly competition. They've sued, even, to prevent the competition.

To date, those court cases have been thwarted by EPB. However, it is a different story in state legislatures. Once again abandoning the business lobby’s typical call for less government intervention, telecom firms have successfully pushed 20 states to pass laws limiting the reach of community-owned utilities like EPB.

That’s where Washington comes in. With Census figures showing more than 1 in 5 Tennessee residents having no Internet connection, EPB is now proposing to offer its ultra-fast services to new communities. But it needs the Federal Communications Commission to preempt the Tennessee statute prohibiting the utility from competing with private telecom companies outside its current market.

For EPB, the good news is that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has repeatedly pledged that in the name of competition and broadband access, he will support preempting state laws like Tennessee’s. However, in a capital run by money, EPB may still be politically overpowered. After all, as a community-owned utility in a midsized city, EPB does not have the lobbyists and campaign cash to match those of behemoths like Comcast and AT&T. What the utility does have is a solid track record and a pro-consumer, pro-competition argument.

The question is: Will that be enough to prevent Wheeler from backing down or being blocked by Congress? The future of the Internet may be at stake in the answer.

As ever, Arkansas was way out ahead of the wrong end of the curve on this. It, too, has a statute passed years agho that prohibits government from competing with cable TV and Internet providers. Its repeal is the crux of a drive by FASTERArkansas, a nonprofit coalition, so that an existing state broadband service that serves universities could also serve public schools. It's helped by having Walton support, a source significantly richer than the state of Arkansas and most of its small telecomm companies.

I wonder if FASTERArkansas would do even better with its highly paid lobbying effort if they said this could be a pathway to competition in every sector of the market. Could Little Rock or the North Little Rock electric utility, for example, get into the cable/Internet business and undercut Comcast's ruinous rates or beat some of the problematic Internet service that exists out there?

Republicans in the legislature would no doubt say there's no way government could beat private enterprise. Perhaps they should take a field trip to Chattanooga.

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