The Digital Divide and Municipal Broadband

The Digital Divide and Municipal Broadband

One of the most successful initiatives of the New Deal era was the Tennessee Valley Authority,  or TVA. While the TVA had and has its critics, with good grounds for criticism, much of what the TVA set out to do was accomplished. The corporation electrified vast swaths of the U.S west of the Mississippi, creating a variety of new business and employment opportunities and helping to raise whole communities out of poverty. It also achieved the admirable feat of going from being fully subsidized (by Uncle Sam) to being fully self-funding, not only for power generation, but for environmental initiatives and economic development activities throughout the region.

One might ask why the federal government got into the power generation and rural electrification business. The answer is simple: the costs involved, especially in the first 20 years, vastly exceeded the revenues to be generated in the short- and mid-range. No sensible private-sector investor would have jumped into that game, especially not over the entire region and across the breadth of initiatives the TVA undertook.

For-profit initiatives might cherry pick the best opportunities, but most of the area would have been left without service and the benefits that electricity brought.

Seventy years before the TVA came into existence, Uncle Sam created incentives to foster massive private investment in another incredibly daunting infrastructure project: the development of the transcontinental railroad. What made that project sensible for the private sector was the tremendous package of real estate assets and regulatory protections Uncle Sam provided, if only they would connect the coasts.

Otherwise, that famous spike might never have been driven that linked up East and West.

These dramatic historical examples are illustrative of the kind of thinking that has led the government, on its own or with private partners, to venture into areas of service provision in which the private sector also is engaged on its own. As I wrote earlier this week, when a service isn’t being provided equitably or adequately because of market conditions, some level of government may have a role to play either in providing that service or in facilitating its provision.

Which brings us to the role of municipalities in the provision of broadband Internet access.

I live in a relatively well-to-do- section of Tampa. Though we are miles from the center of the city, it makes business sense for the Internet service providers to lay in the cable to support broadband access because my neighbors and I want it and, at least as important, can pay for it.

In my household, the Internet now vastly outstrips conventional television for hours spent each week. That pattern is not unique to my home.

Of course, it is much more than entertainment that we find on the Internet. As I’m writing this blog, I’m accessing saved links, news stories and notes. I read the news online each day, from multiple sources. I check calendars on various websites, receive appointment notifications from online services, and share tasks with my colleagues.

It is incredibly hard for me to imagine living my “normal” life without broadband access (and I remember the early Internet connections, including dial-up with acoustic couplers, so I really appreciate broadband!)

But it would be absolutely impossible for someone to compete with me in many of the areas in which I work if they didn’t have broadband access.

Who doesn’t have it?

Folks who live in communities, or in parts of communities, where the economics of cost-versus-price don’t work. Where laying cables and establishing distribution points constitutes an investment that is expected to be greater than any likely return from subscribers’ fees.

The “digital divide” (a term referring to a wide range of technology-related deficits suffered by segments of our population) is not just an inconvenience. It’s a serious threat to the educational progress of children and adults. It’s a serious threat to employability, limiting essential skill acquisition and inhibiting important communication.  It is, in short, a damper on economic growth and individual economic self-sufficiency for those who are on the wrong side of the “divide.”

Is efficient, reliable access to the Internet distributed unequally? Absolutely. Today, is efficient, reliable access to the Internet essential? Absolutely.

Sounds like a case for government investment.

Yet a number of state legislatures have contemplated and/or adopted measures that place significant obstacles in the path of municipalities considering broadband initiatives. In fairness, some of these obstacles may be fiscally responsible efforts to prevent broadband from becoming a fad that fades. But others simply seem designed to keep municipalities from responding to the needs of their citizens in a more equitable way than the private sector has done to date.

The FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, and some members of Congress have come to the defense of municipalities striving to address what even Comcast’s executive vice president, David L. Cohen, calls “one of the greatest civil rights disparities” our nation has confronted.

Let’s hope their voices and their reasoning reach a very wide audience.