Sunday, August 27, 2006

The Broadband Betrayal Continues

by Kyle Michaelis
For anyone who's followed the one-sided "debate" over public broadband, last week's news that the commission entrusted with studying the issue stands on the verge of doing the telecommunications lobby's bidding should come as no surprise. Following in the footsteps of the legislature and Governor Heineman (who, respectively, voted and signed LB 645 into law without any substantive hearings or explanation), this commission is near completion of a betrayal of rural Nebraska, its future, and this state's neediest citizens that began almost 18 months ago.

The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
A special task force is poised to recommend the Legislature shut the door on public agencies helping provide high-speed Internet and other services across the state.

After months of wrangling over the issue, the Broadband Services Task Force led by Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy staked positions Wednesday that are expected to frame a final report to be submitted to the Legislature late this year....

Should the positions voted upon Wednesday result in law, Nebraska’s one-of-a-kind web of publicly owned power districts will be barred from helping stretch high-speed Internet, video and telecommunications services to residents. Retail service, or providing services directly to residents, was not at issue. State law already bars it....

A member of the task force that is general manager the Dawson County Public Power District argued that barring that district and others from using its infrastructure to help spread services would amount to “writing off rural areas.”

“I’m not ready to write off rural areas that easily, especially when you have some entities ready to step up and help the process,” said Robert Heinz. “I’m not ready to walk away and leave rural Nebraska to its own devices.”

Another member who supports public participation, Linda Aerni, president of Columbus-based Community Internet/Megavision, said the task force has suffered from myopia by focusing on input from phone companies and not others in the Internet business. The group has also failed to examine the experiences of other states that have allowed public entry, she said.

Shelly Sahling of Lincoln Electric System, who attended the meeting but is not a member, said 14 states allow it. She agreed with Aerni.

“Nobody’s gone out and found those abysmal failures where the public was allowed in and it impeded competition,” said Sahling.

“We’ve been here for 1½ hours,” she added, “and nobody’s talked about the customer.”

Though entirely expected, this really is a bleak sign for Nebraska's economic and educational outlook. Regardless of how people feel about public utilities entering the market for Internet service, in either a wholesale or retail capacity, it's impossibly, inexplicably backwards for state government to choose such drastic and final action at this point. While other states experiment with models to expand access and affordability of high-speed Internet, we are slamming the door in the face of such opportunities before our communities have even realized they exist.

So far, the only leader in the state to have risen up and challenged this act of corporate greed's trumping the public good has been Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Hahn, whose vision for a Nebraska that embraces the future so clearly contrasts with the ruling Republican regime's blind adherence to the status quo. Hahn responded to this latest news by telling the Journal-Star:
The Democratic candidate for governor blasted the vote of a special broadband task force as damaging to the state, and suggested he will draw attention to the issue of Nebraska’s Internet service in the race's final months.

The actions of the task force charged with advising to the Legislature on broadband issues could “put this generation and future generations at a significant disadvantage,” said David Hahn.

“It’s sad and it’s a blunder,” he added....

A spokesman for Gov. Dave Heineman said the governor had not yet had a chance to closely review the task force’s vote.

“He’s going to keep an open mind and will look at the issue,” said Aaron Sanderford.

No surprise there. Heineman needs to study the study, despite the fact that he signed the underlying bill in Spring 2005 without a second thought. Although it's a foregone conclusion that he will again do the Telecommunications lobby's bidding, Heineman will do what he does best - delay taking a position until he's damn sure it's not going to cost him on Election Day.

But, whether or not Hahn can turn the Broadband betrayal into a winning campaign theme, it's clear his forward-thinking message has at least inspired his fellow Democrats to look to the needs of Nebraska's future and the outright foolishness of our forsaking the one strategic advantage we have in terms of 21st century technology. Although I haven't yet had the chance to write a full report on the 2006 Nebraska Democratic Party convention held last weekend, I'm happy to report that, thanks to Hahn's leadership, that body proved several steps ahead of this report in adopting to its platform the following language:
Universal Broadband
Building from Nebraska’s successful tradition of public power and recognizing the economic and educational needs of the 21st Century, the Nebraska Democratic Party calls for the development of a statewide broadband Internet infrastructure. Municipalities and other public entities should have the right to partner with private corporations to encourage access and lower costs, while retaining the flexibility to pursue their own service as best fulfills the needs of the citizens they serve.

A call for freedom - no more, no less. A call that we not tie our hands and cripple our potential any further along this disastrous and short-sighted approach chosen by Nebraska's visionless servants of the status quo.


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