The public internet utility.

The other day Glenn Fleishman suggested what would have happened if the creation of public electrical utilities had been attacked in the same way that municipal broadband solutions are these days. His imaginary Previous Millennium Research Council (PMRC) uses similar arguments:

The PMRC also takes the stand that installing electricity in every home would drain tax coffers, and expects that once projects are begun, the revenue from them might never cover the immense cost of such service. “One might imagine a city building an electrical network that could provide any amount of service at any time of day or not, rather than at particular times that are most advantageous for power generation,” the report states.

Businesses are also not interested in electricity, the PMRC states, noting that horses, railroads, coal, and the Irish are the driving forces of the economy. “Providing universal access to electrical power is not a leading consideration in business development,” the report says. While certain businesses require electricity, such as theaters or carnivals, business conditions are best improved by well-honed service provided by a single company in each field which reduces the chances of disruption.

Today Michael Geist uses a similar analogy. He suggests that access to the internet could be considered a public good:

The providers argue that municipalities are ill-equipped to offer broadband services, ignoring the fact that many municipalities already provide a host of sophisticated services such as electricity, education, public transportation, libraries, and waste disposal.

Many of these services are viewed as public goods that are best provided to the community by the community. In an age where Internet connectivity is increasingly a prerequisite for banking, health care information, government services, and personal communications, ensuring that an entire community enjoys affordable access is a necessity, not a luxury.

In fact, in some communities, the existing public utilities have begun to provide internet access, made easier by the fact that in many cases they own distribution lines and networks, as well as rights of way. These are “for profit” businesses. And in some cases they are more competitive that the larger telecom providers.

For example, I currently live in Waterloo, Canada. Fibretech, the local utility provider, offers WiFi locally for $4.95 per hour. Rogers Communications, one of the two largest telecom companies in Canada, just announced their WiFi service for $9 per hour – almost twice the price.

Either we define the internet as a public good and build local utilities to provide it at breakeven cost, or we allow real competition. Either way, the choice should not be dictated by a single telecom company. Residents of a city are more than capable of making decisions regarding how their city provide such a service.