Monday, May 22, 2006

The Broadband Betrayal Revisited

by Kyle Michaelis
On several occasions last year (1...2...3), I expressed outrage at the state legislature's buckling to the will of the telecommunications lobby and betraying the interests of the common Nebraska citizen, not to mention the state's economic future.

Frankly, the moment Gov. Dave Heineman signed LB 645 into law, outright prohibiting cities and public entities from providing internet service, he declared himself a corporate stooge of the highest order without any true concern for the rural and low-income Nebraskans who would stand to benefit most from government's expanding the availabity and affordability of broadband technology.

With the release of a new report testifying to the stupidity and short-sightedness underlying this legislative blunder, today's Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
...Many Nebraskans have no access to fast broadband service or if they do, it’s pricey because there’s no competition.

The state should allow local governments and public utilities to offer broadband so all Nebraskans have access to inexpensive service, recommends the report prepared by the Brennan Center for Justice and the NYU School of Law.

The report offers information and advice to a state task force created by the Legislature to study Nebraska’s broadband issues. It recommends modifying or repealing the current restrictions on government provided broadband....

The Brennan Center report was submitted by a coalition of organizations that includes the Center for Rural Affairs, Common Cause, Free Press, Media Access Project, the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Rural Policy Research Institute.

The report focuses on rural Nebraska needs. Almost half of the Nebraskans living in small towns or on farms and ranches do not have access to broadband. And many others have only one broadband provider, according to a 2005 Nebraska Telecommunications Association report.

An NTA report of 2006 indicates that 7.4 percent of Nebraska towns (44) have no broadband provider and 44.8 percent (267 towns) have a monopoly broadband provider....

“Private providers have failed to deploy universal, affordable broadband in Nebraska and elsewhere in the country,” the report concludes.

It recommends that the Nebraska Legislature let communities decide whether they want to build a public broadband service by repealing or modifying current law.

Both city governments and public power companies should be able to offer wholesale or retail broadband service to areas where it is now unavailable and to provide competition where there are just one or two providers.

Hampering local communities from responding quickly could mean a loss in of jobs in Nebraska to states that allow their local governments to offer broadband.

Communities with affordable broadband will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t, the report said.

The state can level the playing field by requiring public entities to offer services at or above costs, or by requiring local governments to pay substantially the same taxes as public companies in providing telecommunications services, according to the report.

The legislature banned municipal and public broadband at the behest of multi-million dollar corporations before most Nebraska communities had even considered the possibility. Gov. Heineman, as per his M.O., put short-term political benefit before even the pretense of responsible, forward-thinking government. It was a shameless act of cowardice, tying communities' hands from pursuing the one competitive edge that falls most naturally from our established system of public power.

Hopefully, this report will help open people's eyes to who it is Heineman has truly been serving in his short time in office. And, on this issue in particular, I am proud to say that Nebraskans have a true alternative on the November ballot - Democratic gubernatorial nominee David Hahn has made creation of a statewide broadband infrastructure one of the key components of his vision for a Nebraska prepared for the challenges of the 21st Century.

Although it is not at all an exclusive strategy, Hahn has spoken on numerous occasions of the possible "use of the publicly-owned statewide electric grid in the nation’s only 100 percent public power state to provide high-speed broadband Internet service in all areas of Nebraska as a means of spurring rural revitalization."

Whether or not such a visionary approach is wholly practical, it sure is nice to imagine a governor who pursues opportunities and opens doors rather than closing them before a true debate about the future could even take place. One man follows the money, while the other looks to the future. That's a difference in styles between Heineman and Hahn that I expect will become more and more clear in the coming months.

Hahn is itching to lead this state into new territory, while Heineman has designated himself the defender of the status quo. If voters truly want more of the same and truly believe that Nebraska is on the path to progress, then Heineman is their man. Heck, he's even on record with his intention to seek a second complete term four years from now.

The Heineman Decade - it's yours if you want it. But remember where the Heineman/Johanns status quo has gotten us so far - 49th in economic development just last year.

At the end of eight more years of the same, where will this state stand if it hasn't been moving forward? Just how far are we willing to fall behind? Just how far back can we fall?

And, more importantly, are these questions to which we can really afford an answer?


Blogger Hosh said...

I love it. The more Heineman speaks, the better Hahn is looking. Now if only he can buy the OWH to put his name in the paper.

Anonymous TedK said...

Completely agree but we have to be careful about using power lines to carry Internet traffic. Most of the systems out there produce radio interference that severely affects communications on amateur radio and public service bands. (Thanks to Victoria Lavin for pointing this out to me.)

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


You're right about the interference from BPL (broadband over power lines) affecting HAM radio operators, but - to my knowledge - the public service bands should be easily protected. And, though it pisses off amateur radio enthusiasts (a feisty bunch), I have to point out that the public benefits of statewide broadband would far outweigh those in their little hobby, no matter the doomsday scenarios they might imagine.

Which isn't to say we shouldn't take their concerns into consideration - they simply should not be controlling.

If nothing else, public power presents a good model for public broadband - whether or not it relies on the same infrastructure. Still, the existing network already has this potential, there's no reason not to be testing the technology in a few corners of the state just to get a true sense of its costs and benefits.

Experimentation. That's what this legislation prevented. The lobbyists spoke as if it was to maintain competitiveness, but - in reality - killing experimentation in this manner is the surest way of protecting their de facto monopoly.


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