Last week – while the Minnesota Broadband conference was happening in St Louis Park, the Pioneer Press ran an editorial from Annette Thompson Meeks from the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. The letter alluded to the conference (although they had the wrong date) and the keynote speech from Susan Crawford.
Here’s a cheat sheet on the issues at hand. Susan Crawford encourages the option for local government to provide broadband to residents and businesses as a utility. The Freedom Foundation discourages government intervention because of the risk involved with using government money to build, maintain and run a broadband provider business – citing a study done by Charles Davidson and Michael Santorelli that included a profile of the network in Monticello.
To be clear – they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Freedom Foundation supports “free markets and limited government” and Crawford writes about the negative impact of broadband monopolies have had on “America’s global economic standing”. They each have a story. And as Davidson and Santorelli point out (in a different publication on broadband than the one cited in the Freedom Foundation article) narratives matter…
Narratives matter in politics and policymaking. How an issue is framed and the evidence offered in support combine to tell a distinctive story about a particular issue or industry; the goal is to pique the interest of stakeholders and animate or deter a particular type of response. In the context of the market for broadband Internet access in the United States, two competing narratives have emerged, each with a unique set of arguments, evidence, and desired outcomes.
They go on to say…
Whether GONs [Government Owned Networks] are a prudent and appropriate investment of public funds and other resources is the subject of fierce debate. Advocates and opponents alike cite an array of reasons, data points, successes, and failures as evidence of the wisdom or folly of having a municipality enter the broadband market as a service provider. In many ways, this debate is a microcosm of the larger conversation about broadband in the United States and which of the competing narratives more accurately reflects the consumer experience and the realities of the marketplace across the country.
The problem is that there is no singular “consumer experience” across the county or in Minnesota. As Bernadine Joselyn is fond of saying, if you’ve been in one small town in Minnesota, you’ve been in one small town. They are all different. I recently had reason to dig into county-level data on broadband. We hoped to find the magic ingredient to better broadband. We’re still looking.
Some local providers are an asset to the community. (We have many in Minnesota!) And I heard at the conference that some communities feel like they are being held back by their providers. Attendee stories were a strange mix of “What we do with a Gig” and “How we innovate to get kids access after school because they can’t get access at home”. (Quick aside – where would you like to live?)
Willing local providers are the best partners! But there have to be options for when that isn’t the case. Shannon Sweeney (from David Drown Associates) spoke at the conference about Broadband Partners. His goal is to minimize risk. They have six directions they look to before they look at community networks…
“Only after all other opportunities are exhausted do we begin to look at alternatives for providing services through a start-up company – and even then we go back to Step 1 and have similar conversations with operators, companies or cooperatives in other industries that could potentially provide this service.”
There is risk in a community-owned network. But there’s risk to the community in not having broadband too. It’s difficult to measure the negative capability inherent in not doing something but there is a cost of doing nothing – the loss of opportunity. It’s not the job of a private business to take on that risk (all the more credit for those who do!) but it responsibility of local government to remove barriers for their local businesses and citizens. Community broadband networks are a door that should be open to local governments – it will be the right door for some and not others. It will rarely (I have never seen it) be the first door a community tries. I’ve seen the communities where the door is shut on them and they do risk loss of business and residents. Those costs are as hard to recoup any investment risk.