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I really don't understand how everyone gets so excited over publicly owned internet infrastructure. Here in Wilmington, they can't get the buses to run within 30 minutes of scheduled time. I don't even want to imagine what the municipal internet would be like. Over in Atlanta, not too far from Chattanooga, the public sewer system has major sections dating back to the reconstruction after the civil war, and dumps untreated sewage into the Chattahoochee after a big rain overflows the system. Municipal infrastructure historically is under-maintained (hard to get people to long up tax dollars for something that already kinda works). It'll be curious to see how Chattanooga keeps up with the upgrade cycle over the next decades.

Also, no company wants taxpayer-funded alternatives to their product. Its impossible to effectively compete with a public entity that can tap tax revenue. That angle doesn't really add anything to the article.




You make two arguments and they contradict one another:

1. That public internet would suck because all public projects suck (and cite examples). 2. That private companies wouldn't be able to compete with public ones.

They cannot both be true. If the public offering was as bad as you claim, private companies could compete (e.g. on quality).

So which is it? Either public companies suck and therefore private companies would be able to compete (by virtue of them sucking less presumably) OR public companies don't suck and the private companies wouldn't be able to compete.

Your whole post reads like one of those propaganda pieces put out by the far right, interest groups, or think tanks. Just generic "all public services are terrible" then switch it up into "it is unfair that companies have to compete with taxes!"

One could take the logic in your post and use it to literally argue that all public entities ever should be closed and privatised. Even things like cops, fire services, and so on could be hit by that logic. There's no limits.


It absolutely can be both. The government-run solution could be poorly managed, unreliable and overly expensive while still scaring away the massive investment needed for someone else to compete. A private for-profit business could be completely undercut by the government service which can be incredibly unprofitable but continue to operate using tax dollars.

The current telecom oligopoly is bad, but a government-run monopoly is the one thing that could be worse. Now, public money going to build last-mile fiber which is then leased to competing ISPs to create a functioning marketplace (neither corporate oligopoly nor government monopoly, but a true economics-textbook 'free market') sounds like something that could be a good use of public money & power.


Theoretically, there is no reason for a government-run utility to be worse. There should be democratic pressure to improve service, balanced by democratic pressure to cut costs. Despite what ideologues say, there are many examples of well-run government-run programs, such as NOAA, CDC, NIH, interstate highways, FDIC.


In what way are the enumerated programs well run? Well run compared to what?


Take NOAA vs Weather.com as an example. One employs hundreds of scientists and engineers to improve their forecasting models and early alert systems. The other employs hundreds of engineers to improve ad-clicks and increase profit margins.


> They cannot both be true. If the public offering was as bad as you claim, private companies could compete (e.g. on quality).

Unless those private companies are legally prohibited from competing, or are prohibited from practically competing by things like red tape or fees for constructing infrastructure.


Alternatively, it's usually possible to heap tax money on the inefficient government option to allow it to have an incredibly low "sticker price" because they charge everyone for the service whether or not they use the service through taxes. Essentially making it so you buy the inefficient services either way, and if you want you can pay a bunch more to use a private competitor.


And yet, my roads, police and fire services, and municipal maintenance services work very well.

Just as with the private sector, you'll be able to find public initiatives that aren't reaching their goals, or are outright failures. Should they not be permitted to compete against the private sector when the private sector chooses not to serve a certain unprofitable market segment? If you're that good at providing services, why as a private business are you worried about competing with an "incompetent" (as you may argue) public sector initiative?

Full Disclosure: I fully support municipal broadband, and want a stake driven through Comcast's heart.


> And yet, my roads, police and fire services, and municipal maintenance services work very well.

For varying definitions of 'very well.' Public services are good at delivering a minimum level of service to everyone. Everyone will get water and sewer service. That water might not be particularly clean, and the sewers might dump untreated sewage into the environment, but everyone will get it. The problem for you in this narrative is that you're the yuppie who would be happy to have a higher water bill in order to have cleaner rivers: you're not going to get your way.

Chattanooga was able to piggy-back this on the fiber network put in place for smart grid. What happens in 10 years when that network becomes obsolete? Your neighbors will have to vote to fund upgrades. Will they do that? 60% of people who have access to FiOS do not subscribe. When those same people vote on whether to raise their utility bill to fund upgrades, do you think you'll be happy with the result?

You sound unhappy with Comcast, but the fact is that they pump enormous amounts of capital into their network, while municipalities are famous for letting their infrastructure rot.[1]

I'm not opposed to public services. The question is: will municipal internet be more like NYC's transit system, or more like the ones everywhere else?

[1] The U.S. Society for Civil Engineers estimates we're $3.6 trillion behind on infrastructure maintenance. http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org


In your comments, you should probably disclose that your previous employer represented/represents Comcast.


Indeed [1]: not only Davis Polk & Wardwell happens to "routinely represent Comcast in antitrust aspects and related investigations" [2]; but also he interned for FCC commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, who was widely criticized for her blatant pro-Comcast decisions --only to be hired afterwards as a Comcast lobbyist herself) [3].

[1] http://www.linkedin.com/pub/rayiner-hashem/8/1b5/348

[2] http://www.davispolk.com/practices/litigation/antitrust-and-...

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meredith_Attwell_Baker


People keep pointing out "But Google can build gigabit! Why can't Comcast?"

Who he worked for previously doesn't really change the fact that he has pointed out repeatedly that Google Fiber is getting breaks to only build out to rich neighborhoods vs. Comcast having to build out to an entire city, even sections of town which will lose them money.


> You sound unhappy with Comcast, but the fact is that they pump enormous amounts of capital into their network, while municipalities are famous for letting their infrastructure rot.[1]

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Comcast's profitability is over $1 billion a year.

Should my electric company be able to profit at that level? Because they're much more reliable than Comcast, and they're a regulated monopoly that needs to report to the PUC (Public Utilities Commission).

Have we determined yet if Internet access is a utility such as phone service, electricity, water, and natural gas service? If it is, isn't it time last-mile delivery is regulated as such? (Which leaves Comcast in a precarious position as a last-mile provider)

Also, I'm not unhappy with Comcast because of my service. I'm unhappy because of their efforts to prevent municipal broadband. They are the Koch Brothers of the Internet, and are attempting to squeeze whomever they can for access only they provide in a great deal of markets to a tool that is the foundation of the 21st century.

TL;DR Regulate last mile delivery as a utility, politely ask rent-seekers like Comcast to leave.


Excelon, the power company in Illinois, has profits of $2.5 billion on $18 billion of revenue. Comcast, which covers a much larger footprint, has profits of $6.8 billion on $64 billion in revenue. Excelon's profit margin is larger.

I don't think the "internet = electricity" analogies are very good. The regulated part of the electric monopoly (e.g. ComEd in Illinois) just has to maintain wires built decades ago. If internet infrastructure were the sort of thing we could bury in the ground for 50 years and forget about, that might work. But stuff that was state of the art in the 1990's is obsolete now. There is no public infrastructure that turns over that fast.

You didn't respond to my point about politicizing investment decisions. Utility investment decisions are intensely political, and voters don't care about better technology, they just want cheap rates. Its a huge battle for most utilities to raise the money they need to upgrade the network, or even just maintain it properly. If you think Comcast is slow to upgrade its network, what do you make of utility companies that are operating coal plants that are literally a century old? The fact that public utility regulation has left us $3.6 trillion underfunded is totally ignored by proponents of municipal internet service.


> You didn't respond to my point about politicizing investment decisions. Utility investment decisions are intensely political, and voters don't care about better technology, they just want cheap rates. Its a huge battle for most utilities to raise the money they need to upgrade the network, or even just maintain it properly. If you think Comcast is slow to upgrade its network, what do you make of utility companies that are operating coal plants that are literally a century old? The fact that public utility regulation has left us $3.6 trillion underfunded is totally ignored by proponents of municipal internet service.

Electric utilities cover large areas. You use Excelon as an example, who delivers my power in Northern Illinois. As you say "..[they] just has to maintain wires built decades ago." It's not just wires. Its transmission facilities all the way from 700kVa down to the 120V step down in your neighborhood, even to your service entrance.

Internet access is no different. You trench fiber in the ground, you drop equipment cabinets on the curb, and you pull your plant to your CO for interconnection to your routing/switching gear (although sometimes this gear is distributed across the plant instead of at the CO; depends on size/network topology).

My municipality or coop not upgrading fast enough or providing the service I want? I argue I have more leverage in that case as a share/stakeholder. With Comcast, they're out for the shareholder, not me.

As I've said elsewhere, almost all other utilities have functioned well in a regulatory, profit-restricted environment. Why not last-mile packet delivery?


Yes, but again, those facilities don't have to be upgraded t anywhere near the rate telecom infrastructure does. Look at his long its taking to deploy Smart Grid. Is it practical to run telecom infrastructure in a way where upgrades require a decades long political process? I think you're wrong about having a better shot convincing upgrades as a voter than as a Comcast customer. Comcast at least sees the value in offering certain customers high end service for a high price. There is no such thing in the utility world. Everything is geared to the lowest common denominator, because 51% carries the vote. Your other voters are people like my mom, who wanted to cancel FiOS in favor of cable because she wanted Indian channels.

As for utilities having functioned well: you keep ignoring the $3.6 trillion U.S. Society of Civil Engineers number.


> I think you're wrong about having a better shot convincing upgrades as a voter than as a Comcast customer.

Not only do I believe I have a better shot as a voter, I believe I'll have more control over the service I receive.

http://bgr.com/2014/05/20/comcast-twc-customer-satisfaction-...

"In fact, Comcast and TWC’s Internet service businesses were the only two businesses in the United States to score below a 60 on the ACSI’s 100-point scale. What’s most amazing is that both Comcast and TWC have even lower customer satisfaction ratings than United Airlines, which has a notoriously bad reputation in an industry that, due in part to government security requirements, is known for delivering a miserable experience."


I don't know what that really proves. Nobody polls people for satisfaction with their municipal rate boards.

Again, the proof is in the pudding. We have underinvested in our infrastructure to the tune of $3.6 trillion. Our bridges are crumbling, our transit systems haven't been expanded in decades, our sewer systems are polluting the environment because nobody wants to spend the money to bring them in compliance with environmental laws, and yet you posit that public utilities work "very well" and assert that they should get involved in an area where technology moves 10x as fast as the areas in which they already lag behind. I just don't see how you get from point A to point B here.

Let's not forget the big elephant in the room too. The states haee no money. When Illinois is deciding between defaulting on its debt and giving a haircut to public employee pensions, where do you think spending money keeping up with telecom infrastructure upgrades is going to fall in the list of priorities?


> The question is: will municipal internet be more like NYC's transit system, or more like the ones everywhere else?

It's funny that you use this as a point of comparison. The NYC subway system began as three competing private companies.

Long story short: They went broke, and were acquired by the city in 1940 (and then later by the state, which now has authority over the MTA).

While they were originally constructed as private subway systems, I firmly believe that it would be impossible for NYC to function the way it does now if its public transit system were privately run.

That's not to say I'm a fan of the way the MTA is regulated. I follow this issue closely and have a lot of opinions on the matter. There are a number of ways in which the state government cripples it. But it's still significantly better than it would be if the Interborough Rapid Transit were still running the numbered lines.


> Long story short: They went broke, and were acquired by the city in 1940

Not quite as simple as that, the city had been deeply involved for decades prior to them finally taken over completely, and the city effort was itself deeply indebted.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure the GP emphasized the MTA as a (rare) example of public infrastructure that's actually run to the high standard we'd want our internet infrastructure to be run at.


That's not quite accurate. There are three NYC subway systems: the IRT, the BRT, and the IND. Some of the BRT was built privately. Most was designed and built by the city and leased to the BRT for operation. All of the IRT was built and operated that way. The IND was built and operated by the city. See: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_New_York_City_...


That is the big danger of municipal broadband. The town I live in frequently votes down budgets that only increase spending on education by just a few hundred thousand dollars. Anyone who thinks those same folks will be voting spend more to make your NetFlix circa 2020 work better have to be incredibly naive.


There's no inherent problem with publicly funded services, but they're only as good as the public body that runs them. If you're in a well-run city/county that's great, if you're in a dysfunctional one then not so much.

I wouldn't have much confidence if my place of residence (Oakland CA) set up muni broadband, for example, although I'd like to be proved wrong. Large parts of the city government are painfully inefficient.


> There's no inherent problem with publicly funded services

The scale of the problem isn't clear, but I would argue that the economic calculation problem is certainly an inherent problem with publicly funded services.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economic_calculation_problem


That's predicated on the idea of all means production being state sponsored.


I don't think that's the case. The scale of the problem would be proportional to the amount of production being state sponsored.


> There's no inherent problem with publicly funded services, but they're only as good as the public body that runs them.

Agreed. This is solved with complete transparency and independent oversight.


> And yet, my roads, police and fire services, and municipal maintenance services work very well.

Do they really though? Road infrastructure (especially bridges) is widely recognized to be really bad in the USA. It's hard to say how well police work without comparing it to something else, but just based on the US prison population I would say that police don't work well. Fire and maintenance services might work reasonably well, but I bet both are shockingly expensive.


> Do they really though? Road infrastructure (especially bridges) is widely recognized to be really bad in the USA.

This is due to Republicans in Congress blocking an increase on the gas tax, currently at ~18 cents/gallon of gas since 1993.

> It's hard to say how well police work without comparing it to something else, but just based on the US prison population I would say that police don't work well.

I'm not a huge fan of police myself, but I believe this problem to be with laws enacted by legislative bodies. I believe you'll see less arrests as drug arrests drop due to decriminalization/legalization of recreational drugs across the US.

> Fire and maintenance services might work reasonably well, but I bet both are shockingly extremely expensive.

Citation? My property tax bill for my municipality (~75K people) shows public safety costing ~$48 million/year and highways and streets cost ~$14 million/year. I don't believe those costs to be out of line for the amount of people covered.


> This is due to Republicans in Congress blocking an increase on the gas tax, currently at ~18 cents/gallon of gas since 1993.

Is it, though? Only 60% - 65% of the gas tax is spent on roads and highways [1] [2]. Not to mention (possibly ultimately justified, but still relevant) drivers of extra cost like the Davis-Bacon Act.

[1] http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_ID=20698 [2] http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB1000142405270230381540...


>This is due to Republicans in Congress blocking an increase on the gas tax, currently at ~18 cents/gallon of gas since 1993.

Your demagoguery does not hold up to the fact that Democrats recently held a majority in both houses of congress.


> Your demagoguery does not hold up to the fact that Democrats recently held a majority in both houses of congress

Your argument fails to take into account that, due to the filibuster, legislation can be blocked by one party (with no support from the other party) so long as the opposing party doesn't have both a majority in the House and a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate.


Can you show me Democrats that have voted against the gas tax increasing? I'm going off recent (the last 4-8 years) news.


The idea is that they're now in power and if it were such a good idea, they should have implemented it now that they could get it passed.

If it's not such a good idea then perhaps it was only done as a publicity stunt, and that would explain why it hasn't come up again.

I don't know that I care much one way or the other. But saying "Democrats haven't voted it down" is actually different than "Democrats have made it a priority"


Pointing out that there are hypocrites in the Democratic party too gets downvotes? Really? I'm not saying that I like the Republicans, they're hypocrites also.

But the Dems do get campaign contributions from Oil & Gas companies. Only at 20% of the rate of folks in the GOP but it's not as though it's a 99/1 split.

https://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?ind=E01


> This is due to Republicans in Congress blocking an increase on the gas tax, currently at ~18 cents/gallon of gas since 1993.

Maybe so, but that's not the point. I'm just challenging the claim that government (which includes Republicans) effectively performs those tasks.


I'm arguing local government can deliver services effectively to its citizens in almost all but a hand full of cases.


I missed that in your argument. I would still challenge that claim, especially when it comes to roads, which get a ton of funding from higher level governments and are still pretty bad.


Are you not proving the point? Saying that government-run projects are limited because of the decisions of the government doesn't seem to be a great argument for government-run projects.


I thought I was proving that local governance works, whereas federal governance does not as much. Its much easier to effect change at the local level than the federal, hence "municipal broadband" and not "federal broadband".


As a fire/medic in Western Washington, fire district rates are capped at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, and are typically less (changes need to be voted but cannot exceed this, regardless).

A semi-rural department with three fire engines, ambulance, brush trucks, serving an area of 7,000 people and approximately ~1,000 calls a year does so with expenditure of ~$1M for those 7,000 residents.


> A semi-rural department with three fire engines, ambulance, brush trucks, serving an area of 7,000 people and approximately ~1,000 calls a year does so with expenditure of ~$1M for those 7,000 residents.

What's the breakdown of your calls? Car accidents? Health problems?


Per normal for this area, about 85% is medical. In our area, about 10% of the medical is MVAs.


I'm in Chattanooga and I love it. Their customer service is great and they've upgraded me from 50mbps to 100mbps, then again from 100mbps to 1000mbps for the same monthly price. I just get emails that say "We've upgraded your internet speed!" I like a free market too, but it's too late to keep the government out of the competition. They ended that game when they allowed providers to lay claim to large areas free of direct competition.


I'm here too; EPB is amazing. I cut cable about 6 months ago (kept 100mbps), yet they were still awesome from a customer service perspective.

There is a lot of talk in the thread about public vs private - regardless of ideology - EPB is an incredibly run public utility (as least as a customer)


I did the same; I stopped by their office on the way to work with my cable boxes. While standing in the customer service line held up by a problematic customer, a woman took me aside to her cubicle nearby where she had me sit down as I turned everything in and changed my account. Very friendly, no pressure to keep anything. She just made the changes and helped me save some time. Much different at Comcast, where I was treated like an animal.


It is refreshing. I'm glad they are getting some love because they are great to work with.

As far as business users go, they could drop their prices a little, but overall - they are top notch.


As a side note, it's always surprising how many Chattanoogans come out of the woodwork on HN when a Gig story appears.


We love our internet :)


The US is in the peculiar situation where a large portion of the population has been convinced that government cannot be competent and thus shouldn't be expected to be.

Meanwhile, in much of the developed world, people are shocked when a train is a minute late.


Exactly, and for some reason people who make these sort of claims are unable to comprehend the fact that there may be a connection between believing/acting/voting as if government doesn't work and then having underfunded government projects fail hard.


How does one calculate whether a government project is "underfunded?" It seems easy to fall into the trap that a government project is underfunded if it did not meet the expected results. Clearly the solution must be to add more money.

Take public schools, for example. It is often said that public schools are "underfunded." Yet Washington DC schools spend almost 3x the national average per student and has abysmal results.


I'd call it the depressing situation, personally. I wish I could carve out a small corner of the US sometimes where people don't actively sabotage the ability of government to function effectively.


I think someone hits on this in a different thread, but there are forms of incorporating these sorts of utilities that avoid most of the difficulty of maintenance, etc. For example, in the recent multi-week power outage a few years ago here in CT, the best response came from the municipally owned power company serving the Norwich area [1]. It's not impossible to do this.

Also, there are better ways to look at how to fund these. For example, having municipalities own the wiring only, and let ISPs pay to have access to the homes (similar to how telecom or power systems work now, e.g. different charge for distribution). I would love more choices of providers, honestly, and with fiber, there are better options for managing traffic at the neighborhood and local level.

[1] http://www.norwichpublicutilities.com and http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/business/the-troubling-con... (the section re: Norwich is about halfway down)


It's not really mentioned in this article but EPB owns the fiber and EPB Fiber Optics which delivers the broadband service pays a fee to them to use the infrastructure. What would be interesting is if EPB opened the infrastructure up for other providers to use and compete for customers.


Well, given that it's a natural monopoly, the private sector probably isn't going to do much better with it. The natural inclination will be for a private business to demand ever-increasing rents to feed their shareholders' desire for profits and growth. Public investment can make longer-term investments that retail investors don't have the stomach for, and it's not like the private sector is utterly incapable of waste and mismanagement.


Here in Wilmington, they can't get the buses to run within 30 minutes of scheduled time. I don't even want to imagine what the municipal internet would be like.

Saw this elsewhere today. Speedtest result from Chattanooga:

http://www.speedtest.net/result/3637087466.png

Every private corporation that ever took a tax abatement, subsidy, or other government incentive is also "taxpayer funded."


Wow! It's 25% more than I'm paying for Comcast and 26500% faster.


Water, electricity and sewer are stellar examples of things that fade into the background and are often run by highly regulated public entities. I would love for my internet to be as reliable as my power.


In Wilmington, which the parent comment mentioned, the power is run by Duke Energy. The water & sewer is public, and is subject to frequent breaks and spillages as a result of how outdated the infrastructure is.


Nothing would guarantee that a private coorporation would somehow magically upgrade the water and sewer system. Since they are profit based they would probably just do the minimum required by law. The only thing that could possibly work, would be that the infrastructure is still owned by the city and it awards operation contracts every 10 or so years.


> Over in Atlanta, not too far from Chattanooga, the public sewer system has major sections dating back to the reconstruction after the civil war, and dumps untreated sewage into the Chattahoochee after a big rain overflows the system.

Wow. Just wow. You do know that Atlanta privatized its water, right? The private company, United Water, failed to deliver on it's contract. The city took over water duties again after finding fraudulent billing and lower water quality delivered by United Water. Since the city took over in 2004, they've reduced sewage overflows by 97-99%.

That's a really terrible example to use for your argument.


Common carrier has worked out for other utilities in the past. Publicly owned infrastructure is the next step.

You can view it as simply as, developing a single distribution network and subscribing to Comcast/AT&T/etc at your discretion over that common distribution network saves everyone money, because the city has only one distribution network rather than several cable networks, DSL, satellite, etc. It additionally could encourage competition among service providers, as incumbents would not need to develop their own distribution network.


One reason I'm excited about it is because it introduces some form of competition in a market that currently doesn't have any. As long as municipal broadband isn't the only option, they will have to provide better service than the existing companies in order to attract and keep business.

Also, the existing infrastructure was built with tax money and heavy tax breaks as well. Local governments won't really be at an advantage for having those levers to pull.


Well then, let's answer that question in a few decades. Nothing is keeping private companies from building out infrastructure and competing, either now or in the future when the municipalities become sluggish without recourse.

However, let's ask that same question about "privately" owned Internet. To have an actual market, there must be more than a single provider. Which means the overwhelming majority of places have been stuck at DSL for over a decade!


It's really just a testament to how terrible the private ISPs are. At least with public internet there is a theoretical way to set certain standard, whereas with the ISPs' de-facto monopolies and huge capex barrier to entry we know they have zero incentive to ever improve service.


Ultimately what it boils down to is that many people (including myself) want something other than the current status quo for internet service, which is a fucking travesty in most of the US in terms of price for (poor) service.

If the solution comes from the private sector, the public sector, or rainbow unicorn fairies is a secondary concern. But the current system is clearly not the answer, which is why I can't read about the home Internet options available to people in most of the world (with a few other exceptions like Canada and Australia) without nearly breaking down and crying.


While this might be true of a lot of entities, it's worth noting that EPB has amazing customer service. I can't scream enough about how great they are.

That might not prove true for a lot of entities though, but EPB is great. They're likely one of the few well run power companies though, I've heard lots of horror stories elsewhere.


One of the reasons that corporations are so firmly on the "cut-taxes" bandwagon is because it allows them to make your argument: that government-run projects are awful. Of course one of the reason some of them are awful is because they are underfunded, and because there are all these conservative politicians that don't want government projects to be successful so they make sure they're not.




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