No Broadband Is Ever Really “Free”

One way or another, it’s going to cost New York City residents if the government provides “free” Internet.

Some people firmly believe that the government should provide pro bono broadband for all, but others can list numerous reasons why that would more likely be a big mistake.

Mr_Monsta_Nothings_Free-front-largeLet’s start with the one vote for “yes” that we were able to hunt down.

“The Internet is an educational tool, so we should be subsidizing broadband access in poor and or rural communities,” said Jeff Pagano, client services manager at Power Consulting Group. “I think we’ll find access to broadband playing a key role in preparing our kids to complete in a globalized economy.”

That argument aside, the idea just doesn’t land with—well, anyone else.

“Any government broadband will most certainly have the stipulation that allows the managing government agency full authority to access information that passes through the infrastructure,” said David Sturner, principal and COO of Murray Hill Properties and member of the NYC chapter of NAIOP.

Basically, he and others believe that tenants and landlords would likely find their privacy infringed upon.

Mr. Sturner continued, “Another negative would be speed reduction as the infrastructure expands and becomes strained by the number of people and businesses serviced.”

Roslyn Layton, a Ph.D. fellow studying broadband at the Center for Communication, Media and Information Studies at Aalborg University and working for Strand Consult, agreed with this train of thought, adding that, in general, if the government is paying for broadband, you won’t be sure to get the best technology.

“Not only is the profit motive removed to reward innovation, but without different kinds of networks competing in the marketplace, there is no way to experiment with alternatives,” she said.

Ms. Layton also argued that, even if we had broadband deployment “to every last corner of America,” we could not be certain that everyone would adopt the technology.

“There are still people who don’t want to be on the Internet even if you give them free broadband and hardware. We can’t be sure that government investment in infrastructure will ensure innovation,” Ms. Layton said.

Hans Peter Bech, CEO and founder of International TBK Consult, drew our attention to the fact that allocating government funds to interfere in a market always has numerous negative side effects, like “adding bureaucracy, making choice of technology mistakes and favoring the big players.”

“If there is no solid business case for the benefits, then the risk of doing more damage than good is much too high,” he said, adding, “There seems to be no solid evidence that rapid deployment of broadband services will accelerate economic development.”

Plus, once it’s up, there’s no guarantee that the government will maintain or upgrade it—which is a risk with any city-run operation, frankly.

Also worth noting is the fact that government budgets are limited. Cuts on education and health care for the poor and elderly have already been rampant—cutting more to pay for broadband infrastructure probably isn’t going to sit well with anyone.

Then, of course, there’s an even bigger ethical question.

“If you think the Internet should be free, first you need to establish why the Internet should be free, and not food, clothing and shelter, the basic necessities of life,” posed Ms. Layton.

Lady’s got a point.

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