Monday, March 05, 2007

Success of Public Power Begs the Question: Why Not Public Broadband?

by Kyle Michaelis
Sunday's Omaha World-Herald editorialized:
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....

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.
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.

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.

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Anonymous TedK said...

There are technical issues that must be solved involving radio interference when transmitting over power lines, but it it stupid to completely throw out consideration of this option.

Kyle, saw that your blog got a reference by Don Walton in the Sunday Journal-Star. Also, did you notice the Fresh Faces interview with Sen. Mark Christensen ( ? Almost thought I was reading an Onion parody. I saw him interviewed on a TV station concerning stem-cell research at the UN Med Center, and even after a spokesman described a procedure where cells are extracted from a non-fertilized egg, Christensen continued to go on about the sanctity of life, etc... Hope there aren't too many others like him in the Legislature.

Anonymous MattLarsen said...

The use of BPL (broadband over power line) is an almost inconsequential concern with regard to NPPD.

The real concern is that NPPD already operates a fiber network that could EASILY be used to provide service to areas with a lack of connectivity, but it is closed to any outside providers. Wholesale access to this network would open up all kinds of new possibilities.

The second concern is the ban on government operated networks. I'm not necessarily a big fan of govt. operated networks, but there are situations where it makes sense and those situations should not be prevented.

IMHO, the access to the NPPD network is a much more important element.

Matt Larsen

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

BPL is a red herring. Mr. Larsen is absolutely correct about that - though some experimentation with such a system would certainly be in order.

I'm just as concerned about the principle as the technology. Honestly, it's the sacrifice of so many educational and economic opportunities without any public debate that should leave every Nebraskan outraged - especially because our poorest and most rural communities will suffer the most for this broadband betrayal.

The Task Force reported to the Natural Resources Committee and to the Transportation and Telecommunications Committe. Looking at the make-up of the latter - with the obvious exception of Sen. Schimek - I'd guess we're in a lot of trouble if they're left calling the shots.


The Sen. Christensen interview was equal parts troubling and hilarious. I'm sure we all shared a sad laugh to ourselves when he actually called himself a "nonconformist." I doubt the Onion could have done any better.

Anonymous queen of the legislature said...

question... if public power is given the go on providing this broadband we really want to rely on a provider that let a large portion of southwestern nebraska go without power for weeks be in charge of providing that service? What about businesses that rely on internet service for daily activites, sales, communication, etc. If we go to a publicly supplied service, what are the guarentees and back-ups that can be provided?! And as i see it...where is the state $$ for this?

But i understand the concerns private corporations can bring and the likely path of a monopoly and $$ burden to Nebraskans.

as for Christensen..i just wonder where such a place exists in Nebraska for him to adopt such a think southern accent. He seriously talks like he grew up on the front porch pickin' the banjo with a piece of wheat in his mouth and a jug of moonshine at his side...
just my opinion!

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Her Royal Highness-

Public broadband - in either a wholesale or retail capacity - would only be another option, not a monopoly in itself.

Now, it's undeniable that the public sector has certain advantages over private counterparts, but the reverse is true as well. If ones service proves deficient, more expensive but perhaps more trustworthy alternatives should remain. This is particularly the case with costly service by satellite that is currently the only broadband option many rural communities have.

Again, Nebraska's successful (but, admittedly, imperfect) system of public power already stands in stark contrast to strict capitalist orthodoxy. No one has proposed that public broadband have a similar monopoly, but this is about simply allowing Nebraska communities to explore their options in using publicly-owned resources that are already in place for the common good. If it doesn't work out - if people are content with the options that are already available - the state would lose nothing but its lingering doubts about so many lost opportunities.

LB645 was a hideously reactionary hindrance to Nebraska's economic development and technological advancement. Tying the public's hands and limiting the people's options before they'd even been explored or tested was entirely indefensible. Only the telecommunications lobby was ever heard, and that remains the case to this day.

I concede that there are legitimate arguments for keeping the public sector out of retail service, but banning public-private partnerships that would simply maximize the potential of our existing infrastructure is so wholly idiotic that our legislature - not to mention Gov. Heineman - should bow their heads in shame.

Was that too harsh? I can never tell.

Anonymous Elisia Harvey said...

If there ever was a way to stop the brain drain in Nebraska, getting affordable and available broadband internet access is it. We're in one of those communities where there is only one broadband provider, so we must pay big $$ for access. Since my husband and I both are continuing our higher education through online courses (offered through Nebraska institutions too far to drive to for class), we have to do it. The internet is the future, and the future is here, folks. If we don't make it available to everyone, we are denying prospective students the chance to learn and businesses the chance to grow... and with no prospects for growth and advancement, what incentive is there to stay?

Anonymous queen of the legislature said...

Never too harsh for this royalty Mr. Michaelis!
I'm not implying that public broadband would be a monopoly, i would love the idea of providing a service that has become a basic need for everyone via a public avenue. my deal was with the reliability of public power...and government's role in providing it to the the expense of their tax dollar :)
I can see the argument that there are always public libraries with access so why can't people just use that.
the problem lies with power and regulation. its hard for government to let people roam without proper supervision!
back to my throne :)

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...


Much of the appeal of public broadband in Nebraska is that, with our existing electrical infastructure, the fixed costs to taxpayers would be minimal to nonexistent.

Unless I am quite mistaken, our system of public power is economically self-sustaining, and I see no reason why broadband service would not be self-sustaining as well. In fact, on the wholesale market - by simply leasing available bandwidth to private companies - public utilities would likely see significant revenues. Sure, that money would be coming from profits reaped from taxpayers accessing resources that they already own, but at least people might see some return on their dollar in the form of lower electrical rates or better overall service.

As for your point about the reliability of public power, every state has electrical problems. I've seen nothing to suggest Nebraska's problems are worse than anyone else's, even though we have the only statewide system of public power in the country. In fact, beyond our low prices, it's telling (and noticeable in the quoted World-Herald passage above) that our citizens are actually quite content with the system we have in place.

Enjoy the view from your throne. Thank you for allowing me to play court jester as I do my litte dance for our readers' entertainment.


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