Verizon is drawing fire from the government of Muskegon County, Mich., because it won’t let a government-run telecommunications consortium use its poles to support a competing municipal network. “This is a classic case of a project that has been developed for the common good going up against corporate self-interest,” Susan Meston, superintendent of the Muskegon Area Independent School District (MAISD) told The Muskegon Chronicle. Meston says the law requires Verizon to make pole attachments available to the school district. But upon closer look, it’s not the school district itself that’s seeking attachment, but a private telecommunications consortium, Shoreline Fiber Network, in which MAISD is but one partner. The consortium also includes the county government, the county’s 911 operations center, two area community colleges and a local non-profit Internet service provider. Moreover, the intended purpose of the Shoreline Fiber Network is to create a private IP network, competitive to Verizon, to serve the consortium members. The promise is that it would save taxpayers money, although it is apparent now that a good deal of that savings–$300,000–was predicated on getting free use of someone else’s property. Verizon countered that MAISD was trying to finesse the pole law by arguing that the district’s right of attachment extended to Shoreline Fiber Network. Michigan communications law, Verizon further maintained, expressly forbids “joint use” networks of this type. What’s more, Verizon and MAISD apparently hashed out their dispute in a meeting with the Michigan Public Service Commission. The Chronicle does not report what the PSC said about it, if anything, but after the meeting, Shoreline elected not to pursue the pole attachment issue any further, but place its own poles. This is good news for all, despite Meston’s whining about Verizon’s “sabotage” and “corporate self-interest.” Although Verizon’s poles use public right-of-way, the poles themselves are Verizon property, and Muskegon learned that governments cannot simply claim that property just because they need it. Shoreline Network’s plan may have indeed been, as Meston says, “a heartfelt way to save taxpayer’s money.” However, should I jack my neighbor’s car, I doubt my heartfelt intent to save gas money would win me much sympathy in court. These days, any ruling that upholds the right of property owners should be applauded. You don’t need to look far in this blog to see how heated the issue is over what property a government may take in the name of a better tax base (eminent domain) or ecology (wetlands laws). The first quote in the Chronicle story comes from a Muskegon homeowner who declares “They [Muskegon County] should be able to put lines up on the poles because they need them.” Let’s be careful before we cheer that thought. For all we know, there’s a private real estate developer who “needs” the land your house sits on.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.