Trouble Ahead for Municipal Broadband

by on January 14, 2015 · 3 comments

President Obama recently announced his wish for the FCC to preempt state laws that make building public broadband networks harder. Per the White House, nineteen states “have held back broadband access . . . and economic opportunity” by having onerous restrictions on municipal broadband projects.

Much of the White House announcement misrepresents the situation. Most of these so-called state restrictions on public broadband are reasonable considering the substantial financial risk public networks pose to taxpayers. Minnesota and Colorado, for instance, require approval from local voters before spending money on a public network. Nevada’s “restriction” is essentially that public broadband is only permitted in the neediest, most rural parts of the state. Some states don’t allow utilities to provide broadband because utilities have a nasty habit of raising, say, everyone’s electricity bills because the money-losing utility broadband network fails to live up to revenue expectations. And so on.

The US government has spent billions on broadband, and much of it goes to public broadband networks. The activists’ response to the carriers, who obviously complain about this “competition,” is essentially, “maybe now you’ll upgrade and compete harder.”

Public networks are unwise and costly. Every dollar diverted to some money-losing public network is one less to use on worthy societal needs. There are serious problems with publicly-funded retail broadband networks. A few come to mind:

1. The economic benefits of municipal broadband are dubious. A recent Mercatus economics paper by researcher Brian Deignan showed disappointing results for municipal broadband. The paper uses 23 years of BLS data from 80 cities that have deployed broadband and analyzes municipal broadband’s effect on 1) quantity of businesses; 2) employee wages; and 3) employment. Ultimately, the data suggest municipal broadband has almost zero effect on the private sector.

On the plus side, municipal broadband is associated with a 3 percent increase in the number of business establishments in a city. However, there is a small, negative effect on employee wages. There is no effect on private employment but the existence of a public broadband network is associated with a 6 percent increase in local government employment. The substantial taxpayer risk for such modest economic benefits leads many states to reasonably conclude these projects aren’t worth the trouble.

2. There are serious federalism problems with the FCC preempting state laws. Matthew Berry, FCC Commissioner Pai’s chief of staff, explains the legal risks. Cities are creatures of state law and states have substantial powers to regulate what cities do. In some circumstances, Congress can preempt state laws, but as the Supreme Court has held, for an agency to preempt state laws, Congress must provide a clear statement that the FCC is authorized to preempt. Absent a clear statement from Congress, it’s unlikely the FCC could constitutionally preempt state laws regulating municipal broadband.

3. Broadband networks are hard work. Tearing up streets, attaching to poles, and wiring homes, condos, apartments is expensive and time-consuming. It costs thousands of dollars per home passed and the take-up rates are uncertain. Truck-rolls for routine maintenance and customer service cost hundreds of dollars per pop. Additionally, broadband network design is growing increasingly complex as several services converge to IP networks. Interconnection requires complex commercial agreements. Further, carriers are starting to offer additional services using software-defined networks and network function virtualization. I’m skeptical that city managers can stay cutting-edge years into the future. The costs for failed networks will fall to taxpayers.

4. City governments are just not very good at supplying triple play services, as the Phoenix Center and others have pointed out. People want phone, Internet, and television in one bill (and video-on-demand service). Cities will often find that there is a lack of interest in a broadband connection that doesn’t also provide traditional television as well. Google Fiber (not a public network, obviously) initially intended to offer only broadband service. However, they quickly found out that potential subscribers wanted their broadband and video bundled together into one contract. The Google Fiber team had to scramble to put together TV packages consumers are accustomed to. If the very competent planners at Google Fiber weren’t aware of this consumer habit, the city planners in Moose Lake and Peoria budgeting for municipal broadband may miss it, too. Further, city administrators are not particularly good at negotiating competitive video bundles (municipal cable revealed this) because of their small size and lack of expertise.

5. A municipal network can chase away commercial network expansion and investment. This, of course, is the main complaint of the cable and telco players. If there is a marginal town an ISP is considering serving or upgrading, the presence of a “public competitor” makes the decision easy. Competing against a network with ready access to taxpayer money is senseless.

6. When cities build networks where ISPs already are serving the public, ISPs do not take it laying down, either. ISPs use their considerable size and industry expertise to their advantage, like adding must-have channels to basic cable packages. The economics are particularly difficult for a city entering the market. Broadband networks have high up-front costs but fairly low marginal costs. This makes price reductions by incumbents very attractive in order to limit customer defections to the entrant. Dropping the price or raising the speeds in neighborhoods where the city builds and frustrating city customer acquisition is a common practice. You can look back at the late 1990s when municipal cable was briefly popular. Cities often hemorrhaged tax dollars when faced with hard-ball tactics and their penetration rates never reached the optimistic projections.

There are other complications that turn public broadband into expensive boondoggles. People often say in surveys they would pay more for ultra-fast broadband but when actually offered it, many refuse to pay higher prices for higher speeds, particularly when the TV channels offered in the bundle are paltry compared to the “slower” existing providers. When cities do lose money, and they often do, a utility-run broadband network will often cross-subsidize the failing broadband service. Electric utility customers’ dollars are, say, then diverted to maintaining broadband. Further, private carriers can drag lawsuits out to prevent city networks. And your run-of-the-mill city contractor corruption and embezzlement are also possibilities.

I can imagine circumstances where municipal broadband makes sense. However, the President and the FCC are doing the public a disservice by promoting widespread publicly-funded broadband in violation of state laws. This political priority, combined with the probable Title II order next month, signals an inauspicious start to 2015.

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