The Perils of Thinking of Broadband as a Public Utility

by on November 19, 2008 · 14 comments

Richard Bennett and Matt Sherman explain why it’s a bad idea. (And here are a few of my old rants on the issue.)


If we’ve learned anything at all about from the history of Internet-as-utility, it’s that this strained analogy only applies in cases where there is no existing infrastructure, and probably ends best when a publicly-financed project is sold (or at least leased) to a private company for upgrades and management. We should be suspicious of projects aimed at providing Wi-Fi mesh because they’re slow as molasses on a winter’s day.

I don’t see any examples of long-term success in the publicly-owned and operated networking space. And I also don’t see any examples of publicly-owned and operated Internet service providers doing any of the heavy lifting in the maintenance of the Internet protocols, a never-ending process that’s vital to the continuing growth of the Internet.


Pursuing a public utility model while also desiring competition are fundamentally contradictory goals. Utilities are designed not to compete. Do you, or does anyone you know, have a choice of providers for water, sewage or electricity?

My second question would be: is there anyone in the technology world who sees public utilities as a model for innovation? A 1.5 megabit connection (T1) was an unimaginable luxury when I started in tech in the mid-90’s. It was for well-funded companies only. Today, it is a low-end consumer connection and costs around 80% less. Has your sewage service followed a similar trajectory?

A public utility is designed to be “good enough” and little more. There is no need, and little room, for differentiation or progress. Your electricity service is essentially unchanged from 20 years ago, and will look the same 10 years from now. Broadband, on the other hand, requires constant innovation if we are to move forward — and it has been delivering it, even if we desire more.

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