Should Broadband Access Be Treated Like a Utility?

There is nothing quite like stay-at-home orders for revealing weaknesses in infrastructure. And make no mistake, plenty of infrastructure weaknesses were revealed during the first six months of the COVID crisis. Among them was the realization that rural internet access is a legitimate problem. But is the solution being floated by some politicians – treating broadband like a utility – the best way to go?

The thinking is that making broadband internet a utility allows state governments to exert more influence over providers, in much the same way they now influence gas and electric utilities. Think about that for just a minute. A plethora of utility regulations compel providers to connect service to any land owners who want it.

There are exceptions to this rule, but there are not many. There are very few places in the United States where land owners do not have access to electricity, at minimum. Politicians in favor of making broadband a utility envision the same thing for internet access.

Broadband in Knox County, KY

Evidence of the desire to make broadband a utility can be found in Knox County, KY, where some 240 homes are about to get broadband service thanks to a generous grant from The Center of Rural Development. That is good news for local homeowners.

In discussing the project, state representative Tom O’Dell Smith made it known that he believes broadband needs to be treated like a utility. He explained his position by citing the example of schoolchildren having to go to Walmart to access wi-fi while online learning was in play.

Smith’s example does illustrate the problem of rural internet access in America. It sums up perfectly the reality of the internet’s have’s and have not’s. But again, solving the problem by making broadband a utility may not be the smartest move.

Going the Last Mile

One of the foundational principles of utility regulation is forcing utility companies to provide equal service to all areas. And part of that is to force them to ‘go the last mile’, as it’s known in the industry. Going the last mile is a euphemism to describe making a connection between major transmission lines and individual customer properties.

Turning broadband into a utility would give state and local governments the authority to compel ISPs to go that last mile. But doing so may not be economically viable. To make up for potential losses, ISPs would have to raise their prices across the board.

Is there another solution? Absolutely. Rather than making broadband a utility, it might be better to promote rural internet through 4G and 5G cellular networks. According to Blazing Hog, a Texas company that offers 4G rural internet nationwide, 4G LTE is the preferred technology for the time being.

Cellular internet does not require that last mile mentality. The infrastructure already exists, for the most part. And where service is limited, projects that would otherwise provide funding for wired broadband could go into improving wireless service.

Learn from the Landline

Wired broadband is obviously a good thing. It has made the world a much smaller place. But there is a lesson to be learned by comparing broadband to landline telephone service. Way back when, America couldn’t conceive of a world without landline phones. Today, the landline is all but dead.

It is quite possible that wired broadband will not survive either. A decade from now, companies like Blazing Hog may dominate the high-speed internet industry. And if that is the case, how much money put into wired networks would have been better spent on wireless? Think about that before pushing to make broadband a utility.

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