Do ISPs Deserve Protection Against Competition?

After Wilson built the broadband network it decided to offer broadband services as a public utility called Greenlight rather than contract a private company to run the network. Greenlight now competes with Time Warner Cable and Embarq for customers, and according to Indy Week, Wilson residents who have Greenlight service believe the public utility provides superior service and faster Internet speeds at a lower price than the two private companies. For example, Greenlight offers a basic bundle that includes 81 television channels; digital phone with unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada; and high-speed Internet at 10Mbps (upload and download) for $99.95. Time Warner Cable by comparison has a similar package but with five fewer television channels, digital phone and 10Mbps Internet service (download only) for just under $133.00. Greenlight also offers some services the two private companies simply do not, such as a 100Mbps (upload and download) service for those requiring large amounts of bandwidth. Embarq does not provide television service and its prices for phone and Internet were unavailable at the time of this writing.

If the "Level Playing Field" bills do pass, Greenlight would be exempt from the new laws; however, under the proposed legislation, other North Carolina communities seeking to imitate Greenlight's success would be saddled with the extra burdens outlined in the bill. Although municipalities would be exempt from the proposed restrictions if a high-speed Internet provider didn't exist in their community or the local provider's service was available to fewer than 80 percent of households in that community. The two bills define high-speed Internet in accordance with the federal definition, which is 200Kbps in at least one direction (downstream or upstream), according to the Federal Communication Commission.

For several years, municipal broadband projects have been a controversial issue for communities, politicians, and large cable providers. Time Warner Cable in 2005 attempted to stop North Kansas City, Mo from implementing its own broadband network, and Philadelphia has faced similar difficulties during its ongoing saga to implement a free, citywide Wi-Fi network. Despite the fact that companies continue to rally against municipal Internet projects, the federal government recently allocated $7.2 billion in federal funds toward broadband stimulus that could resurrect municipal broadband and Wi-Fi projects across the country.

While arguments continue in the U.S. over the best way to achieve broadband service for all, other industrialized countries are already moving ahead with plans for national high-speed Internet service. Australia recently instituted a project to have broadband Internet at speeds of 100Mbps available to 90 percent of Australians by 2018 and South Korea is shooting for a national service of 1Gbps by 2013. The United States ranks 15th out of the 30 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in terms of broadband access, and consistently scores poorly in other studies of broadband access among industrialized nations.

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