There is no denying the benefit that broadband brings to all of us. Some would go so far as to say it’s the ‘electricity’ of our day. But is it a right? In other words, should government and service providers be compelled to offer it everywhere, regardless of the cost? It’s a difficult issue to tackle. It raises another important issue – who ultimately is responsible for ensuring universal broadband access – government, service providers, or end users themselves?

This complex issue is highlighted in a recent article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS), in a piece labeled, “Residents Beg for Broadband.” The MJS piece highlights some rural communities in Dane County served by TDS, just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, that currently have no broadband access. Residents of this community are extremely frustrated and are now organized, petitioning the state public service commission to order TDS to provide broadband to them.

TDS says these communities are just too small and isolated to provide broadband services. “I am tremendously sympathetic … but the unfortunate situation is they live in a very isolated pocket. It is the most difficult conversation we have with customers,” TDS spokesman Andrew Petersen tells the MJS. TDS also says the community did not qualify for broadband stimulus funding because of its proximity to urban areas – a claim we have not independently verified.

It’s unfortunate that these communities are not served by a tier 3 rural telco or cooperative, because that would probably nix this broadband access issue in the community’s favor. Unfortunately for them, tier 3 providers can’t be everywhere. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of communities just like them across the U.S. in this same situation.

So ultimately, who is responsible for solving this problem?

  • Is it government? The new national broadband plan with its Connect America Fund may be one attempt to rectify this problem. Truth be told though, the CAF will not dictate where broadband facilities actually get built. So should state PSCs start getting in the business of mandating broadband access in every community? Or maybe there should be a new carrier of last resort responsibility for broadband, in addition to dial tone, as there is now.
  • Is it service providers? Should service providers have an obligation to build broadband facilities everywhere, regardless of whether the business case makes sense? With some limited exception, most service providers are in business of investing capital for a profitable return. Unfortunately that edict sometimes clashes with providing basic broadband access to all.
  • Is it the end user? Should end users simply accept the fact that there are limited resources and universal broadband, while a noble cause, may be unrealistic? Some will argue that life is about choices, and if you choose to live in an area where broadband is not available, it’s your choice. You can either move or band with your neighbors to build your own broadband facilities. For many, that’s a rather harsh, some would argue unfair, assessment.

Like with most important issues, there are no easy answers. There are valid arguments on either side of these three positions. It really depends on perspective. What’s yours?

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4 thoughts on “Broadband Access: Who is Ultimately Responsible?

  1. The private sector is certainly not responsible – their mission is to maximize profits for shareholders. Even if very dense areas, they are loathe to upgrade quickly and the lack of meaningful competition allows them to dither.

    When the matter was cable, I don't think the government had a reason to intervene. But broadband is an essential utility and the many indirect benefits of true fast and affordable broadband are sufficiently large that the government should commit to solving the problem.

    Doing it by padding the profits of private companies is a poor model – something policymakers understood in 1935 but have forgotten in 2010. The proper approach is most loans, occasional grants if absolutely necessary to cooperatives, munis, and nonprofits who will put community needs above profits and can be responsible for maintaining the networks over time.

  2. Isn't this the domain of satellite broadband. Wired (and even wireless) can't get to 100% of the country. While satellite broadband has had its troubles, it will become much better in the next couple years – equivalent to say today's basic DSL, with more reasonable costs – at least that's the message they are saying today. Seems to me folks who can't get anything else should look to the sky, or move …

  3. "If broadband is to be, it is up to me" is a good motto, and reflects the position taken by Communities United for Broadband – Communities need to start with an assessment of what all of their constituent groups needs, which constituents can pay (including those such as businesses and organizations that can pay more for premium services) and what businesses they can attract to town to be anchor tenants on the network.

    From this process should develop a picture of what kind of revenue model the community can build. Then they need to look at how creative they can get with grant programs, foundations, etc. Finally comes an analysis of various funding and fundraising options, including taxes the community can realistically pursue.

    Once you've done all this, you can begin to determine technology choices. Everything doesn't have to be fiber, at least now while communities wait for and/or create a local economic upturn. Only after you've created a business case, identified revenue/financing sources and determined tech requirements should you either pursue private sector companies (providers, manufacturers, contract network operators, etc) and whatever business model that makes sense: enticing ISP buildout, public-private partnerships or public ownership.

  4. It's everyone's responsibility. Government should provide/subsidize transport/backhaul (in much the same way they do with the highway system today). If those costs were removed or significantly reduced, the business case would make sense for either an existing service provider or a newly launched one (profit or non-profit) to provide the service (probably wirelessly in these sparsely populated areas).

    In order to get the reduced backhaul, the service provider commits to offering the service to the community. The community would need to put there money where their mouth is and buy the service. If they don't, then they need to look in the mirror, because it doesn't make sense to bring service to a community not willing to pay for it (as long as the costs are reasonable) . They would then have no one to blame but themesleves.

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