March 9 , 2016

Broadband Boondoggle is Risky Proposition

Charles M. Arlinghaus

 

Changing state law to allow towns to borrow money to run their own internet companies is not about bringing service to the remarkably small number of consumers without access to broadband. It is a mistake that would expose property taxpayers to the same financial problems that plague government-owned networks across the country.

 

Today, in New Hampshire, there is a small list of purposes for which towns are allowed to borrow money. This government-limiting statute makes clear that long term debt is to be used sparingly and for core functions like government buildings and snowplows.

 

There is no legitimate government purpose in borrowing millions of dollars to be paid by taxpayers simply to compete with existing companies. However in the very few spots that don’t have access, town government is currently authorized to build infrastructure if they choose.

 

A proposed law would change that limited purpose. It would allow municipalities to build broadband for any purpose — not limiting it to those without access. The only possible excuse for the change is to allow government officials to use your money to build their own government-run company to compete with current providers.

 

Today, 93% of the state has access to broadband even under the new higher speed definition of broadband. Further, more than 98% of the state has access to mobile broadband. The number of those without service will decline as the federal Connect America Fund spends $25 million in New Hampshire to increase access.

 

For the last decade local government officials across the country have racked up huge debts running mediocre systems with high overhead and few subscribers. Locally, we are very familiar with the taxpayer-nightmare in Burlington, Vermont. The government-knows-best plan was a disaster from the beginning and ended its run in virtual bankruptcy settling a $33 million debt to the banks for $10 million and leaving taxpayers holding an additional $17 million default bag.

 

The best-named silliness is Utah’s UTOPIA. This plan, appropriately named after a fantasy world, saddled taxpayers in 11 Utah towns with $350 million in debt. To bail out the failed network, towns wanted to assess users and non-users a $240 per year tax — they fail, you pay.

 

I doubt any local official would be quite so blind as the local officials in Vermont, Connecticut, North Carolina, Utah, Tennessee, Louisiana and dozens of other communities across the country. But opening up that possibility creates an incentive for the official to think about empire building with no risk except to the taxpayer.

 

When a private company risks its capital, the potential for success is weighed against the possibility of going bankrupt, losing everything without recourse to your and my property taxes. The largest broadband companies in America spend between $35 and $50 billion each year to improve, expand, and upgrade their infrastructure.

 

High tech networks are continually updated at a rate towns can’t hope to compete with. The capital resources and incentives of a private company with national reach are probably greater than one town in one state.

 

Remember that the proposed change would allow towns to borrow money to build competing networks. They already have the power to borrow to serve the 7% of the population that has no service.

 

The question policymakers face is simple: does it make sense to allow government to borrow money which you and I have to pay back with our property taxes simply so they can attempt to compete with a business that invests hundreds of millions of dollars in our state to build state of the art networks in a high tech industry?

 

If we truly want to increase service coverage from 93% to closer to 99%, there are simpler, low-risk things we can do instead of repeating the mistakes of so many debt-ridden communities across the country.

 

Leave in the language allowing towns to serve unserved areas. Work with providers to target the $25 million the federal government wants to send here to ensure it goes to help someone instead of being wasted like the ridiculous “fast roads” project.

 

If a municipality has a proposal that current language doesn’t quite allow then the state can look at it and easily pass enabling legislation if it makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is to allow towns carte blanche to build their own doomed-to-fail internet companies on the backs of property taxpayers.