I’ve spent the past two days attending the Broadband Cities conference. The focus was on metropolitan networks, mainly fiber, but also touching on wireless. Yesterday, I heard an excellent speech by the economist W. Brian Arthur and today Larry Lessig spoke.
Broadband Cities is an independent organization, but the reason they held this year’s conference in Utah was due to the rollout of the UTOPIA fiber network. I lobbied hard in favor of UTOPIA, both to the legislature regarding SB66 and to the Salt Lake City Mayor and City Council. It was no coincidence the conference was held in West Valley City, a participating UTOPIA city, rather than Salt Lake City which withdrew its support. A few of the council members are up for reelection this fall. If you wanted UTOPIA and reside in Salt Lake, you may be interested how they voted.
UTOPIA was restricted by the legislature and stopped in Salt Lake City by the forces who believe the free-market rules all. Many of these same legislators turned around the next year and came up with HB260, which imposed additional regulation on Internet Service Providers and is now being constitutionally challenged. So where does the free-market rule? It must be only where an entity has enough resources to change the rules.
The march towards privatizing and deregulating everything is where I depart with my Libertarian friends. The free-market only works if there is robust competition. The “invisible hand” becomes “invisible clothes” when you start looking at infrastructure, health care, and energy. If the market is dominated by a powerful entity or if entry is cost-impossible, then how does competition have a chance? In fact it doesn’t and guess who suffers?
Arthur emphasized and Lessig touched on the idea that there is a role for government in markets. I say not merely in fostering competition but also where there is a societal benefit. Free-marketeers decry any municipal participation in peoples’ lives as socialism, but that is answering the argument with an extreme. If pure capitalism has brought us Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, and a #16th ranking in worldwide broadband deployment, it is time for the pendulum to swing towards a more active role of government.
When a free-marketeer presents Amtrak as an example of government waste, I have to wonder what they think of the Interstate Highway System. This is also a government program and the cost has been in the trillions. Toll roads with electronic payment systems may have their place, but where would the United States be if Eisenhower had decided to wait for private enterprise to build the highway system? It is the same place we are headed because of the endless wail for privatizing everything in the past 30 years. Commercial healthcare has not brought us universal coverage. Commercial energy has lowered standards but not price. Commercial transportation needs bailout after bailout. America continues to suffer under this delusion.
Our country is more connected if it has effective broadband and a fast transportation system that covers all cities and towns. Americans are happier if they are healthy and not worrying about the cost of going to the hospital. Energy independence will make us safer and charge our economy.
We need leadership that isn’t bowing to the failed ideologies of the past quarter century.