Yesterday, the Federal Trade Commission released a report on municipal broadband. Specifically, the staff report tried to address the question, thoughtfully included in the title of the press release, “Should Municipalities Provide Wireless Internet Service?” Jon Leibowitz, the one Democrat (the other non-Republican, Pamela Jones Harbor, is an independent), issued a concurring statement strongly supporting the right of localities to provide broadband services as a needed competitor and potential “third pipe” into the home.
For me, the important bottom line on the Report is that each locality needs to make its own decision on whether to provide internet service, and under what model. Accordingly, it is a phenomenally bad idea to pass laws that impose blanket bans (like Nebraska's), or which limit the flexibility of localities to act (like Pennsylvania's law, which gives private companies a right of first refusal before municipalities can build their own systems).
This doesn't mean the report is all good for municipal broadband. A flip through the report shows a disturbing trend. Staff are intimately familiar with the literature on why government shouldn't get involved in services the private sector can offer. The footnotes are rich with citations from theorists and from other fields on the problems with municipal provision.
On the “pro” muni bropadband side, the Report relies primarily on two sources: a Media Access Project white paper I co-authored last year and a white paper by Jim Baller. Staff also seems to have looked at some of the underlying sources we cited.
While flattering, I don't consider myself the end-all and be-all of muni broadband (although I can see an argument that Jim Baller is). But as a result, the “pro” side of the argument is presented as fairly weak, while the “anti” side is presented as having a greater depth of support. The FTC guidance therefore weights heavily against municipalities actually offering broadband service, while recognizing that the decision ultimately lies in the hands of the local government.
Still, the FTC Report provides one more significant recommendation to leave decisions on local broadband in the hands of local governments and the local citizens they serve. While I think the political fight over this is pretty much over for now, you never know when it might come up again. And, as Commissioner Leibowitz observed, if this does come up again, it is good to have the FTC ready to defend the rights of localities to control their own broadband destinies.