Once a day or so, I get propaganda messages from a pro-cable company advocacy group called NetCompetition that tries to convince me that I should absolutely love my incumbent ISP and fear anything that could possibly give it real competition, including both government-funded municipal broadband networks and privately funded broadband networks such as Google Fiber.
No, seriously: A non-profit group that’s purportedly dedicated to promoting “competition” for Internet services will trash actual competition even when it comes from other private corporations. Check out NetCompetition’s hilarious essay on how Google Fiber is “preying on distressed communities” to get a sense of what I’m talking about. And of course, when it comes to America’s widely hated cable companies, NetCompetition is there to promote whatever they want — check out its hilarious argument for why the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger is “pro-competitive” if you want to have a good laugh.
I normally just ignore these little missives because I get flooded with PR pitches each day, but today NetCompetition sent me a link to a three-minute video that it said would show me once and for all why having individual towns and communities invest in municipal fiber networks would be the end of the Internet as we know it. I was expecting a sleekly produced video that showed terrible scenes of communities being reduced to smoking piles of ash the minute they flipped the switch on their own networks, but instead I got this:
Yes, that’s NetCompetition’s Scott Cleland basically shouting into the camera for three straight minutes.
As bad as the video’s production values are, the arguments are even worse. Cleland argues that if we let individual towns and cities build their own networks, it will shut out competition from those markets forever and ever and ever as consumers will have no choice but to use the evil CommuNet.
“People think that you can compete with the government?” Cleland asks incredulously. “You can’t beat City Hall!”
In reality, of course, the government offers competing services with the private sector all the time. We’ve had state-funded postal services in the United States since before the American Revolution and guess what — they haven’t put FedEx and UPS out of business. Similarly, the existence of local police departments hasn’t put private security details out of business by any stretch of the imagination.
Cleland’s second argument carries a little more heft as he points to some past municipal broadband projects that have been boondoggles and failures. While this is certainly true, there are also some absolutely stunning success stories — the municipal broadband network in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, is offering residents 1Gbps service for just $70 per month. For comparison, that’s what I’m paying right now for Comcast to deliver me download speeds in the 25Mbps range.
If some municipal broadband projects are successes and some of them are failures, doesn’t it make more sense to study them all to see what works and what doesn’t before writing the entire concept off all together? And even if some municipalities do waste a lot of money on broadband projects that go nowhere, isn’t that their right? Aren’t state and local governments the real “laboratories of democracy,” as some like to say?
Personally speaking, I’d much rather have private sector competition than a government-run network. I would never advocate that the government start manufacturing its own smartphones or even start its own wireless carrier because I think those markets at the moment are either very competitive (smartphones) or reasonably competitive (wireless services) and are delivering good value to consumers.
And I’m not naive about how bad government-run services can be, either: As anyone who’s ever dealt with a utility company knows, their customer service experience leaves a lot to be desired.
That said, if there’s one thing worse than a government-run utility, it’s a corporate-run monopoly. And customer satisfaction surveys all bear this out: The latest massive survey from the American Customer Satisfaction Index shows that both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have worse customer satisfaction ratings than everyone in the United States, even worse than the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Really, think about that: If you’re a private company in a supposedly competitive market that makes your customers even more miserable than the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, you should hang your head in complete shame.
The push in some markets to build municipal broadband networks arose simply because so many citizens have grown fed up with their incumbent ISPs and they want some kind of alternative to the unacceptably bad service they’re getting. If Comcast and Time Warner Cable don’t want to deal with municipal broadband projects then maybe they should try to do something truly radical, such as try to make sure their customers don’t hate them quite so much.