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In this national debate, Americans need to consider how political management of key services often results in disaster, as in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
While devastated Americans waited for days on end for their government emergency agencies to show up, Wal-Mart arrived far sooner to deliver $3 million in supplies. Home Depot and FedEx also expertly prepared in advance, ready to help with supplies on hand. In contrast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency acted as if it wasn't really expecting a hurricane, and proved excruciatingly slow to arrive with even basic supplies such as water.
This type of government failure scenario plays out time and again, making one wonder why anyone would consider handing over the Internet to this same process. Yet, as News.com's Charles Cooper points out, there is a movement afoot aimed at treating broadband like a utility and perhaps even a "basic right."
If such a move were successful, it would push the United States further behind other countries in broadband deployment, causing untold economic and social harm.
The United States now ranks a measly 16th in the world for broadband deployment, giving our competitors a big boost. Jobs that simply require fast communications can go anywhere, and if America doesn't keep up connection speeds, workers in places like India, China and South America will leave us in the dust. This is one of the reasons telecom reform at all levels of government is extremely important, and why most informed people realize that more regulation isn't the solution.
Indeed, America's current broadband crisis is due in large part to poor government management of telecom policy following the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
By taking away incentives for the private sector to invest and innovate, national policy drove a large chunk of America's communication infrastructure into the ground. That mistake will be repeated if governments wrest control of the nation's networks away from the marketplace. City representatives all over the country are clamoring for control, and some, such as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, have suggested that Wi-Fi is a "fundamental right" in need of government protection.
In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Newsom said, "We must view access to information as a fundamental government service akin to libraries or public schools." That's a frightening statement for those who care about free speech and privacy. If the government controls access to information, there's no telling how it will manipulate it for political or other purposes. Worse, government-run broadband would hinder deployment and innovation in the long run--something that most advocates of such schemes fail to see.
In addition to their na?ve belief that government is quick enough to deliver on its high-tech promises, some advocates remain shockingly unaware that handing over the communications superhighway to government today will tomorrow make the system look like the rough and ill-paved roads that government currently manages.
Of course, that doesn't mean the government should do nothing. There's an important role for government to play in the deployment of broadband services. For example, getting rights-of-way privileges should be made easy for all companies that want to provide access in a community.
Governments should avoid trying to create a monopoly by favoring one provider over others, as San Francisco's Mayor Newsom appears to be doing. Cable-franchising rules that have been holding back investment and deployment also need to be revamped so that competitors to the big cable companies can offer services and compete for customer loyalties.
Broadband is much too important to the future success of all Americans to be FEMA-ized by power-hungry bureaucrats. It's time for Americans to tell their leaders that they don't want their communications systems corrupted by the political process.
Sonia Arrison is director of technology studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute.
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