What About the Word “Public” Is So Hard to Understand?

In a now widely dispersed article, Greg Richardson of Civitium has a bone to pick with my organization. His complaint? Our “far left” “bias”“on public ownership” is “damaging to the public broadband movement.”

Dispensewith the red flag words, and you’ll find an important issue. Civitium and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance have very different definitions of the word “public.”

Mr. Richardson’s definition of “public” includes networks that are established with the consent of local governments, but are owned by private companies. It is an arrangement that strongly resembles a cable television franchise. Yet it would be odd to refer to Comcast or Time Warner as “public television.”

There seems to be a rather wide range of interpretations of what constitutes public broadband. MuniWireless.com, for example, now styles itself “The Voice of Public Broadband,” but appears to be guided by a definition quite close to Mr. Richardson’s. Indeed, they commend his “well-argued position” as something that “should serve to remind all of us why we got into this business in the first place.”

Perhaps it is time for those of us who advocate municipal broadband to more clearly explain what we mean by “public.”

Werealize that privately owned electric and gas utilities are called “public utilities,” but that is because their rates are set and their performance is closely monitored and regulated by public agencies. One might argue that in its early years, the local cable TV network was similarly “public” because it, too, was closely regulated by franchise agreements. But in the last two decades the federal government has increasingly asserted its right to regulate, or rather deregulate, the cable television industry, and all but eliminated any authority local governments have over cable companies.

The federal government labels Internet access an “information service,”distinguishable from telecommunications and cable television. Right now, it takes a hands-off approach to regulation. It is difficult to imagine local agreements with the owners of private networks standing once this approach changes. Already many of the same groups that oppose municipal broadband have labeled possible state network neutrality legislation as unconstitutional regulation of interstate commerce.

Whichis why we came to our own definition of public broadband. Mr. Richardson accurately summarizes our own position, posted on our web site. “ILSR believes that only public ownership of a city’s information infrastructure can guarantee citizens a controlling voice in the design and operation of those systems.”

By information infrastructure, we mean the local network that connects homes and businesses to each other and the outside world, through fiber optic cables, electronics, and perhaps wireless components. We stress that public ownership doesn’t necessarily mean government ownership. Cooperative and non-profit ownership structures could also be used.  We also stress that public ownership does not necessarily mean public delivery of services. We envision information networks operating like road networks:  a common carrier, open to all users and suppliers, small and large, at similar rates.

Mr. Richardson himself seems to concede that the federal government hasn’t done right by public broadband in the past. But he worries that ILSR believes it is “the role of cities to ‘get back’ every bad concession that many of us feel have been made in national broadband policy through regulations at a local level.”  He’s right, at least to the extent that cities can do better by their citizens than Washington has.

Mr. Richardson’s outburst was apparently sparked by the recent San Francisco Board of Supervisors decision to consider a municipally owned network alongside the privately owned network advocated by Civitium and Mayor Gavin Newsom. We’ve publicly advocated this approach. A little background may be in order here, especially because it involves another definition of the word “public,” that is, public participation, the people’s right to actively participate in making decisions that affect their future.

Civitium helped shape the San Francisco process. The company was chosen by the San Francisco Department of Technology and Information Services (DTIS) to conduct a needs assessment and a feasibility study for a citywide broadband network. What people need to know is that city staff had two directives. One, more widely known, was Mayor Newsom’s TechConnect initiative, announced in August 2005, which focused on a citywide wireless system. The other was an effort by the Board of Supervisors to evaluate the feasibility of a municipally broadband network, using the opportunity presented by sewer system upgrades. The Supervisors approved a resolution and funds for a study in March 2005, following two years of advocacy by San Franciscans working to bridge the digital divide.

Whathappened over the last two years is a matter of public record. The Supervisor’s feasibility study languished, while the Mayor’s initiative was fast-tracked.

Civitium never did a needs analysis, something uniformly recognized, including by Civitium itself, as a best practice in public wireless initiatives. In its place, the City issued a request for information and comments (RFI/C). Hundreds of San Francisco citizens and regional businesses responded with detailed comments, many supporting public ownership.

At a series of hearings from September through December of 2005, residents and Supervisors went on record with their concerns that the TechConnect process had not been open enough. Many asked for a Community Advisory Council, to represent citizens’ voices in the request for proposals(RFP). Yet the RFP was formally released just a day after the first meeting ostensibly seeking community input on the document.

Ata Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) hearing on December 17, 2005, Supervisors directly asked why TechConnect was not considering a municipally owned network. This hearing came not long after the Comcast franchise extension, which was negotiated without Board input and then presented to them for an up or down vote. Commissioners indicated they did not want to see a replay of that situation.

At the first hearing after the announcement that Earthlink had won the bid (in April 2006), Supervisors voiced their concern that the proposal rating process did not place enough value on public ownership. DTIS refused to release any specifics on how proposals had been scored.

Giventhe extent to which the public and the Board of Supervisors were excluded from the decision making process, the current political stand off, which Mr. Richardson finds so distasteful, is hardly surprising.

Civitium’s disregard for the public is not limited to San Francisco. Mr.Richardson was the consultant in Philadelphia, where the Wireless Philadelphia Executive Committee, appointed by the Mayor, undertook an in depth process that included public input and evaluation of all possible business and ownership models. The Executive Committee concluded that a non-profit owned network would best meet Philadelphia’s goals.

In selecting Earthlink’s non-conforming bid, Civitium helped guide Philadelphia to an outcome that seemingly contradicts the recommendation from the public process.

Civitiumalso advised the Georgia Technology Authority on its “Wireless Communities Georgia,” a program encouraging cities to implement wireless broadband projects. Civitium wrote the grant application cities must complete. The application states a preference for privately owned and operated networks. This preference clearly favors the model promoted by Civitium, and preferred by Earthlink.

Wedon’t accuse Civitium of bias toward private ownership. We expect that its consistent embrace of private ownership flows from objective analysis. Certainly it is easier for public officials to make a case for something that comes, at first glance, “at no cost to the city.”

Whatdoes concern us is that Civitium and a growing number of others call private ownership, “public broadband.” This muddled use of language needs to stop.  The public broadband movement needs to figure out what we mean by public.

Avatar photo
Follow Becca:

Becca joined ILSR to work on American Voice 2004, then stayed on to develop the telecommunications initiative. She went on to do other great things but has since passed away.