Success of Public Power Begs the Question: Why Not Public Broadband?by Kyle Michaelis
A key selling point for Nebraska remains its low electrical rates, a product of the sound management shown by the state's publicly owned utilities. Federal figures through October 2006 show that Nebraska's average residential electrical rate was below that of all its negihbors (7.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with 7.5 cents in Wyomian and Missour, 7.8 cents in South Dakota, 8.3 cents in Kansas, 9.1 cents in Colorado and 9. cents in Iowa). In fact, nationwide Nebraska's rate was lower than that in all but five states - a notable plus for the Cornhusker State.
With the legacy and successful example of public power in Nebraska illustrated by the above figures, one can't help but wonder why our elected officials have sold out the people's best interests by blocking the development of essential public broadband services that could open a new world of economic and educational opportunities for our rural population.
For a quick overview of this continuing legislative atrocity on behalf of Nebraska's powerful telecommunications lobby, allow me to recommend the following:
1. The Broadband Betrayal (06/2005)
2. The Broadband Betrayal Revisited (05/2006)
3. The Broadband Betrayal Continues (08/2006)
This winter, a "broadband services task force" comprised of self-interested corporate stooges with Lt. Gov. Rick Sheehy as their head gave the expected recommendation that the Nebraska legislature make permanent its backwards ban on public broadband - even in a wholesale capacity:
A special task force whose work could help shape the future of high-speed Internet in the state will recommend to lawmakers that power companies and other public entities not be allowed to spread the technology....If this had been an honest committee with any true concern for the public's interest, Nebraska's power grid would have offered all the evidence for which one could ever hope that public broadband might prove an incredible success. Instead, its members voted to tie the hands of Nebraska's communities and to close the door on an entire technology for which the basic infrastructure already exists and could readily be put to work for the peoples' benefit.
Approving public-sector involvement, the task force concluded, could dampen private investment in broadband services.
“Allowing the public in the private sector is a no-no,” said task force member Mark Graham, executive of a market-research company and owner of a company that advises business on how to better use data....
“We didn’t want government in private-sector business,” he said. “Nobody on the public side, quite honestly, has put forth a business plan on how they would do it,” he said about public groups helping to provide broadband.
They don't want testing. They don't want efficiency or competition. Under the guise of protecting "private investment," all they really want is to protect their profits and their monopoly power over a captive population with no other options available.
There has been talk of an initiative petition giving voters the opportunity to overturn the legislative betrayal and blunder that was this permanent ban of public broadband service to customers and its temporary ban on public-private partnerships.
The problem is - as demonstrated in 2005 when LB645 was passed and signed into law by Gov. Dave Heineman with almost no debate on the floor or in the media - there are some very powerful interests with very huge profit margins with a lot at stake on this issue. Despite the clear arguments for people having a public choice - in one form or another - the corporations would be difficult to defeat at the ballot box with the entire arsenal of lies and deception they could afford and would most certainly unleash on unsuspecting and under-informed voters.
Alas, because they actually answer to the people, public utilities aren't going to spend a fortune for the right to better serve their customers. A petition measure along these lines would either take a true grassroots movement that is not yet in evidence or some serious cash from wealthy benefactors who are willing to take on the telecommunications industry no one else has the money to touch.
It would be far easier if some change/repeal of the law were just enacted by our young Legislature - awakening to the failure of their predecessors and revolting against the fix-is-in recommendation from Sheehy's joke of a task force. Unfortunately, it's quite unclear where the majority actually stands with a pre-session questionnaire by the AP showing the Unicameral evenly split with more than half of its number "undecided" or "not answering."
Oddly enough, I've been unable to find a bill before the 2007 Legislature that actually addresses the question of public utilities' ability to sell bandwidth on a wholesale basis to private Internet service providers. With the temporary ban on such public-private cooperation losing effect at the end of this year, this could be a calculated choice to let so extreme a measure fade to protect the more general prohibition against direct public broadband. Either that or some procedure is available to the telecommunications lobby and its bought-and-paid-for politicians to slip-by an even broader permanent ban than they managed with then-Speaker of the Legislature Kermit Brashear on their payroll with LB645. I assume the latter but would be delighted if some knowledgeable reader could clarify what possibilities exist or even draw my attention to relevant legislation of which I am not currently aware.
Meanwhile, if you're interested in what other states are doing to embrace the future that our elected officials' slavish obedience to their corporate masters has so far cost us, please see the Progressive States Network and marvel at just how backwards and offensive our state's current policy is, particularly with Nebraska's proud tradition of practical and progressive public power.
Have we really changed so much? Have we forgotten that better part of ourselves that once believed in the strength of community? Or, is it only our elected officials who have so lost their way?
Hopefully, time will tell a different story than what we've seen these last two years. Our future is counting on it.