With all the hoopla around Google Fiber coming to San Antonio, there is very little talk about a crucial aspect of San Antonio’s, or any municipalities’, getting Google Fiber. Namely: is Google Fiber going to make it harder for telecommunications and Internet to become a public utility, by entrenching Google’s, and other private, ownership more; easier to become a public utility; or, is Google Fiber a neutral influence on telecommunications/Internet becoming a public utility? This also begs the questions: Is it even a good idea for telecommunications and the Internet to be a public utility? and why?

To be clear, by “public utility”, I mean a system — the telecommunications system in this case — owned by a government, such as a city, county or state, or even by the federal government; and where, at the federal level, for example, there could be a “Dept. of Telecommunications” created, just as there is a Dept. of Agriculture, Education, Energy, and so forth.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, I searched the Internet for an expert who could provide some thoughts — or even answers — to these questions, and came across an article written by Bill Schrier called, “Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle”. Bill Schrier, it turns out, is the former Chief Technology Officer for the City of Seattle, who retired in 2012, and is now senior policy advisor to the Chief Information Officer of the State of Washington. In addition, Schrier has received his MPA (Master’s in Public Administration) from Evans School at the University of Washington in Seattle. Sounding promising, I wrote Mr. Schrier an e-mail and here is what he had to say (note, I include most of what he wrote back to me, because it is so informative, well-explained, and does, indeed, answer my questions):

“Google fiber will definitely make it harder for fiber to become a municipal utility,” Schrier writes, answering my main question. “With Google fiber already in the ground in a place like Kansas City or Austin,” Schrier continues, “there is no reason for a city to build a separate fiber to the premise network. And while you may look on Google as a savior because it offers a higher quality service and brings competition to the marketplace, there is no guarantee that will always be the case. Google could raise prices, could charge Netflix and NBC fees to deliver their content in a quality fashion, and could become an unregulated monopoly for Internet service. Google is in this to make money – lots of money – not to do consumers and businesses any favors.”

Regarding my other questions — i.e., is it even a good idea for telecommunications and the Internet to be a public utility, and why? — Schrier provides valuable insights in favor of the telecommunications/Internet industry being a publicly-owned utility. He also write, however, that there is some benefit to having Google Fiber, at least in our present system, though our present system seems far from ideal.

Schrier continues in his correspondence with me, “In my ideal world, governments would build municipal fiber utilities to reach every home and business. This has been done in some places such as Chattanooga and Lafayette, LA. The idea is that the government owns the fiber cables, just like government owns streets. Then any private company can offer services across those fiber cables; internet access, video service (IP-TV and/or cable television), telephone service, security services (alarming) and so forth. A consumer could, then, have multiple competing internet service providers to choose from, driving quality of service higher and costs lower. This is just like a delivery service. You can choose FedEx, UPS, the Postal Service to deliver stuff to your house on the public street.

“Of course the problem with that model is that existing telecommunications and cable companies already have wires to homes and already offer most of those services. I don’t like this for two reasons: first, there is little competition – usually you only have two companies to choose from for Internet service. There is little incentive to offer faster internet service or to lower the price. Second, the company owning the wires also can own the content – that’s why you are forced to take a package of 100 cable channels when you only really want or need a few. Plus, the cable company can DISCRIMINATE in favor of its own content. In the case of Comcast, which owns NBC, all NBC-related content could flow into your house faster, while any competing content would be slower (jerkier as seen on a TV) unless the other content paid Comcast a fee for quality delivery. This is exactly what Netflix agreed to do with Comcast. And, as you probably know, cable companies have the worst customer service as measured on almost every customer survey…

“Still, having three companies (Google, the local telecom and the local cable company) compete for service is definitely better than just two. So, overall, Google fiber is a positive factor for cities, consumers and businesses. -bill”

Bill Schrier’s description of municipally-owned fiber infrastructure agrees with technology expert and author Susan P. Crawford’s important book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. In interviews, Crawford describes the benefits of a publicly-owned telecommunications industry, using Seoul as an example of a city which is able to provide the Internet for $30/month, specifically because it’s fiber cable ring is municipally-owned. Here, she talks about how broadband as a publicly-owned utility works, which is similar to Mr. Schrier’s description (50 sec. video) — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SCLVvE93YMo&feature=c4-overview&list=UUUNkkjoqa6mX8jP4Y4wMEyg .

When Schrier writes in his e-mail correspondence, “With Google fiber already in the ground in a place like Kansas City or Austin, there is no reason for a city to build a separate fiber”, he describes most places in the United States, and throughout the world. But San Antonio already has municipally-owned fiber built into its infrastructure, ready-to-go. But it can not be used, at least for San Antonio’s residents, because current Texas law forbid municipalities from being able to provide telecommunications to the public. So, what is needed to overturn this law? Are the people of San Antonio and COSA’s hands tied to do anything about it? San Antonio residents just overturned Texas’ ban on gay marriage. Perhaps the people being able to have access to its city’s fiber is next.

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