A story on S.B. 313 hit Slashdot Tuesday and was sent over via the Tip Line. The premise of the bill is that municipalities would have to solicit proposals from the private sector before offering Internet access to their citizens. The argument of local control of tax dollars or whether or not Internet access is a human right in the 21st century (Vint Cerf, the acclaimed father of the Internet, would disagree with that notion) comes into play, but when municipalities have tried times before of offering Internet access and offering it at prices where other companies can’t compete and then subsequently folding, it seems like it might be a good idea to at least make sure that all other options have been tried.
Rogers says cities like Tifton, Marietta and Acworth have tried unsuccessfully to be public providers. He says the legislation levels the playing field for public and private broadband providers.
“The private sector is handling this exceptionally well,” Rogers said. “What they don’t need is for a governmental entity to come in and compete with them where these types of services already exist. We’re not outlawing a local government entity from doing this, but if they’re going to compete, they can play by the same rules and ask the voters if it’s okay before they go out and spend all these dollars.”
Georgia Municipal Association spokeswoman Amy Henderson said the organization has some concerns about the bill. She said the issue is one of economic development.
Rogers says cities like Tifton, Marietta and Acworth have tried unsuccessfully to be public providers, only to lose millions of dollars at taxpayer expense.
“When cities were getting involved in broadband, it was because private industry would not come there,” Henderson said. “Without that technology, they were economically disadvantaged. We feel like it is an option cities should have.”
And from GPB:
Rogers says his bill wouldn’t keep towns from offering the service.
“They can go and set up the broadband service but if they recognize it’s going to lose money they need to be very honest with the taxpayers and go to referendum and ask them if this broadband plan, which they think is so important for their community, is worth exactly what they plan to spend on it,” he said at a press conference.
Tifton officials say the city became an Internet Service Provider in 1997 because no private company would offer broadband service then. City Clerk Rona Martin said it established the service to attract businesses and help existing entities such as the local hospital, not to make a profit.
Martin said the service is now defunct but it proved its worth because now private companies offer broadband service in Tifton.
Now, for disclosure purposes, I have EPB Fiber Optic as my ISP. EPB is a Chattanooga-based utility that services a small segment of North Georgia (I dunno how that occurred or the history behind it, but whatever) and I benefit from a municipality competing with the private sector to provide Internet access. I will say this, EPB probably spent a lot of time, effort, and money to make sure that the market existed for fiber optics in the Chattanooga-area and seem to be doing well in terms of solvency. They offer competitive prices that are comparable with competitors like AT&T, Comcast, and the like. With free market forces, AT&T or another ISP would probably have come into the area and offered fiber optic. They may still do it. However, I believe that the premise of the bill is to ensure that municipalities don’t go out and invest big bucks of taxpayer money into a whizz-bang Internet system whether it be fiber, Wi-Max, or some other delivery system just on a whim.
Ultimately, the free market will allow broadband to reach even the more rural areas of the country (eventually Wi-Max and other 4G technologies will emerge and become pervasive). It would seem to make more since to have a company come in and wire the community if there are either enough customers to support the costs, enough potential in the area for business growth, or a combination of both. Currently, this bill is in committee in the state senate but has bi-partisan support.