PolarNet vote on FTTH in North St Paul

Today, the citizens of North St. Paul are voting on PolarNet, a municipal fiber to the home network. The results will be interesting and will generate significant discussion in the coming days about why it passed or did not, the role of groups like the Coalition for Broadband Choice and the MN Free Market Institute, and the future of similar municipal fiber to the home initiatives.

In my work with communities on broadband and economic development, I seek pragmatic, problem solving solutions. In communities where the discussion begins “If only we had a fiber network, people would come here and start businesses”, I emphasize the need for current users to adopt technologies that make use of robust telecommunications networks as a first step in increasing community technological vitality. I also see the significant value of local control of networks so as to more easily and flexibly enable economic development and other community goals. Leaders recognize that the community balance sheet can include a much wider variety of assets than a publicly or privately held company. Plus, I have seen that whenever a third network operator, public or private, enters the market, prices drop and services improve.

My work brings me into close contact with telecommunications providers as well. I appreciate their focus on the bottom line and ROI. But unfortunately, providers consistently engage in two destructive behaviors. First is the incumbent providers’ widespread, but not universal, inability to work in a straight forward manner with communities seeking enhanced telecommunications services. This is best illustrated by the situation in Monticello where there may soon be two FTTH networks in place. Adjacent communities can only observe that the only way to stimulate private sector investment is to threaten public sector investment. Another practice is the denial of critical information to community leaders about facilities and capabilities. The Coalition for Broadband Choice’s web site cites multiple existing fiber networks; my own experience is that community leaders’ requests for documentation have not been met.

The other common destructive behavior by incumbents is the observation that communities cannot successfully operate a municipal telecommunications network. This assumption is proven false every day in a growing number of FTTH municipal utilities across the country with a variety of operating models.

Thanks to the Internet, we will be able to log on tonight and see the North St. Paul election results. It is critical that communities have the right to ensure their own economic success. Telecommunications infrastructure and services are now a critical ingredient to that success.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose leadership ensured that all Americans would have access to telephone and electricity, said,

“I therefore lay down the following principle: That where a community–a city or county or a district–is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of Government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up, after a fair referendum to its voters has been had, its own governmentally owned and operated service.

“That right has been recognized in a good many of the States of the Union. Its general recognition by every State will hasten the day of better service and lower rates. It is perfectly clear to me, and to every thinking citizen, that no community which is sure that it is now being served well, and at reasonable rates by a private utility company, will seek to build or operate its own plant. But on the other hand the very fact that a community can, by vote of the electorate, create a yardstick of its own, will, in most cases, guarantee good service and low rates to its population. I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility something like this: a “birch rod” in the cupboard to be taken out and used only when the “child” gets beyond the point where a mere scolding does no good.”

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