Thursday, April 21, 2005

"LUS lawyer says cities taking lead"

The Advocate does a good job of overviewing Jim Baller's TechSouth address yesterday. Baller, who represents LUS, is widely regarded as one of the nation's top lawyers on issues involving telecommunications and that reputation rests securely on his work helping municipalities. Beyond his role in our not so little battle, knowledgeable folks all over the country find Baller is worth listening to.

A theme in his interviews and frequent public presentations recently has been the concern that the United States is falling rapidly in the rankings in broadband deployment behind other nations of the world, a failure that we can ill-afford as nations like India and China move rapidly to dominate the world's industrial base as a direct consequence of the lower costs of labor. Because he (and many economists as well) regard this as inevitable, it seems necessary —and urgent—to find some other way for Americans to earn a living. Most folks who come to this conclusion look to "the knowledge economy" and the "information age" with a strong admixture of "creatives" as our best bet to remain on top of the economic pile globally.

That background explains some of the passion we heard yesterday (I attended), a passion the Advocate story accurately reflects. Some of the best quotes:
"The United States is falling behind the remainder of the world in broadband services because telecommunications corporations have been slow to keep up.

That's why municipalities across the country are trying to get into the business themselves, said Jim Baller, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents many of those municipalities."
Baller is peeved with those companies and feels they've let America down. It's hard to argue when you see numbers like these:
In Japan, consumers can already receive 100 Mbps service for $58 a month -- a fraction of the per megabit cost Americans pay.

Other parts of Europe and Asia are also well ahead of the United States, Baller said.
This issue has been widely reported in the technical press, with Korea, a country regarded by most Americans as third world, acknowledged to be ahead of Japan, but the issue doesn't appear to have much traction among news outlets oriented toward "breaking" news and sensationalism. When it does appear it gets mostly "wow, how amazing" or "gosh, how terrible" kind of coverage. Nobody tries to tell us what the problem is. Baller does:

The problem is phone and cable companies have formed an effective "duopoly." Municipalities will have to provide competition in order to raise the U.S. prospects, Baller said.

"I don't believe the private sector can do it alone," Baller said. "Municipalities have a critical role to play."

Well, it isn't that the "effective duopoly" can't do it alone. That's just a polite way to say they won't when you've got Gary Cassard of Cox Cable sitting in the back of the room. I'm not half so polite. They won't because, being effective monopolies, their economic self-interest lies in wearing out their infrastructure before replacing it. The good and wealth of the United States don't factor into their equations; only their own do. And honestly, given the situation these companies find themselves in, they are acting rationally. The irrational actors are ourselves: the citizens of this country. We've let ourselves be blinded by ideologues that demand that we ignore the plain fact that the telecommunications system that is crucial to our future economic health is dominated by ailing monopolies dependent upon antique networking hardware that they cannot afford to upgrade in anything like a timely manner and still maintain the profit margins that are necessary to satisfy their stockholder owners.

If they won't do it then we can.

The solution is municipal broadband networks. Invest in ourselves and bypass the dinosaurs. This is just what LUS is prepared to do. As the largest municipal broadband build in the nation, Lafayette is unquestionably on the cusp of doing something pretty amazing.

What Baller is arguing in a pretty understated way is that we are lighting the way not just by lighting up with advanced fiber technology, but also by deciding to employ a municipal solution that bypasses the ailing giants. If other cities follow our lead the US might well regain hers.

It's what folks like Baller hope for . . . and what the incumbents most fear is true.

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