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Column: Should the Public or Private Sector Control Broadband?



April 1, 2013 By Alex Marshall, Senior Fellow, the Regional Plan Association in New York City

Great politicians can explain complex issues quickly and simply. That’s what Franklin Delano Roosevelt did on Sept. 21, 1932, when, as a candidate for the presidency, he spoke in Portland, Ore., and addressed a big issue of the time: electrical service and who would provide it -- public utilities or private companies.

“My answer has been, as it is tonight, to point out these plain principles,” Roosevelt told the crowd. “That where a community -- a city or county or a district -- is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up ... its own governmentally owned and operated service.”

FDR went on to win the presidency and, while losing some battles, he helped bolster the viability of both public and cooperatively owned power companies, which are still serving their communities well today. He also encouraged states to regulate private electrical companies more aggressively.

We are at a similar transition point with fiber-optic networks, the slender glass tubes that transmit the torrents of bits and bytes that power the Internet, cable television and telephone service, as well as a range of other services, including smart energy grids.

It is now clear that fiber networks need to go everywhere; they should be carried into homes and businesses and replace the antiquated copper lines. But who will install these networks and who will control them? This question is key because it will impact decades of economic growth and who will benefit from it.


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