This week Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler plans to seize regulatory control over the Internet by declaring private broadband carriers to be public utilities. Less well known is that he also wants to usurp state authority to regulate municipal broadband networks.
Local governments are forever seeking opportunities to diversify their, er, investments in sports stadiums, convention centers and such. Many lately have been getting into broadband. Municipalities have built some 180 fiber-optic networks in addition to about 75 cable services. Most operate as de facto public utilities with an implicit, if not explicit, taxpayer backstop.
President Obama last month hailed the municipal gigabit fiber optic network in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as an exemplar of public broadband’s potential to increase connectivity, spur competition and drive economic growth. Yet his laments of market failure are overwrought, and his anecdote of government success comes with caveats.
According to a report last year by New York Law School, the number of high-speed broadband lines more than doubled between June 2009 and December 2012, while the percentage of Census districts with one or fewer fixed broadband providers fell to 1.2% from 3.5%. Broadband cable prices plunged to $1.10 per megabit per second in 2013 from $19 in 1998.