St. Paul, Minn., is considering funding and operating a municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network at a cost ranging between $196 million and $296 million, reports the St. Paul Pioneer Press (in an article for which I was interviewed), or $1,625 to $2,225 for every home and business in the city. This decision comes just weeks after trade press reports that Qwest, the incumbent phone company in St. Paul, is evaluating bids for a major fiber-optic upgrade across its region that will support advanced video and high-speed Internet services. On top of that, Comcast already provides high-speed Internet access across the city. And lest we forget, St. Paul is planning a municipal wireless network as well. So not only will it putting itself in competition with two deep-pocketed, experienced private-sector companies, it would be competing against itself, too. But suddenly the consensus is that wireless services, even though they are perfectly suitable for routine multimedia applications, are insufficient and solving the “digital divide” means running high-capacity fiber lines to every home on the taxpayer’s dimeÃ¢â?¬â??or, more accurately, nearly 3 billion of them. But others, including advocates for greater connectivity to poor and low-income households, are leery of using the digital divide as reason to pour city money into an FTTH network, since most analysts see the payback from these networks coming from entertainment applications such as video file sharing, multiplayer gaming and movie downloading. In the article, Catherine Settanni, director of the non-profit Twin Cities-based Community Technology Empowerment Project, said disadvantaged people need access to the Internet to complete job applications or take online practice tests for school. What’s important for disadvantaged communities is access, not speed. “The digital divide is not about being able to order movies on demand,” Settanni said.
Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.