Coalition Pushes for More Tax Money for Broadband

Coalition Pushes for More Tax Money for Broadband
February 1, 2009

Advocates of government-funded expansion of broadband access are hoping the new president will be more receptive to their message. But technology experts say the change in the White House doesn’t alter the fact that the market will best meet America’s broadband needs.

More than 80 organizations—including AT&T, Google, Cisco Systems, Verizon, the Communications Workers of America, and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation—convened a post-election symposium in Washington, DC to present a unified message to President Barack Obama.

Message Received

The coalition is advocating deployment of a national broadband network, and the computers and training needed to access it, as part of Obama’s planned economic stimulus package.

“In the digital age, universal, affordable, and robust broadband is the key to our nation’s citizens reaching forward and achieving the American dream,” declared Charles Benton, president of The Benton Foundation, an organization that urged more taxpayer funding of technology.

Obama appeared to have received the message. In his weekly radio and YouTube address immediately following the event, he promised to make broadband Internet access available in every corner of the country.

“Every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m president,” Obama said.

History of Failure

Experts, however, note the government has a poor track record when it comes to spending taxpayer dollars to pursue its definition of the public’s right to access technology.

“The U.S. government has, in fact, taken a strong stance in promoting universal adoption of new technologies,” said Daniel Ballon, a policy fellow in technology studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute. He pointed with skepticism to the coalition’s references to government investment in canals, railroads, electrical power, and highways as success stories.

“What do all of these examples have in common?” Ballon asked. “Ultimately, they all became monopolies—either sheltered [from other private competition] or run entirely by the government. Do we really want the future of broadband to resemble Amtrak, the power company, or NASA?

“Unbelievably, [the coalition] actually touts ‘national telephone’—i.e. ‘Ma Bell’—as an example we should emulate,” Ballon said. “If ‘universal access’ is the only criterion, Ma Bell and Amtrak are great triumphs. Unfortunately, government-sheltered monopolies have little incentive to innovate or respond to customer needs. This results in large and cumbersome bureaucracies that waste taxpayer dollars and resist change.”

Avoid Doing Harm

Barbara Esbin, senior fellow and director of the Center for Communications and Competition Policy at the Progress and Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC, said any “government stimulus” should not interfere with a market already meeting demand.

“There are always downsides to achieving network capability and access goals through government stimulus, particularly where the market is delivering adequate results on its own,” Esbin said.

“One would hope this effort has the wisdom to concentrate on solving real problems that are not susceptible to resolution by the private sector or individual companies, and not on fixing that which is not broken,” Esbin noted.

Brien Farley (brien.farley@gmail.com ) writes from Genesee, Wisconsin.