The Non-Profit Alternative to Muni Networks

IBM and Cisco, with the participation of SeaKay, a non-profit organization, plan to provide free wireless broadband access to 1,500 square miles in Silicon Valley, which would make it the largest community broadband initiative thus far: 42 cities, 2.4 million residences, $270 million. This comes as San Francisco, the city just to the north, continues to dither about whether government should fund broadband networks. There, municipal advocates argue that the private sector is incapable of getting broadband to those who need it. The Silicon Valley project, and others like it, belie this. They show how much of an interest the private sector has in promoting broadband use. It also shows that government participation is not required in order to close the “digital divide.” Given the number of municipal failures, compared to commercial and non-profit successes in broadband, government only tends to make digital divide problems worse. They siphon off investment from the private sector, while falling short of their own goals. Moreover, when non-profits like SeaKay participate, there is less of a chance that community broadband projects will fall prey to political interia or apathyââ?¬â??a concern voiced by Boston authorities who chose the non-profit approach specifically to ensure continuity of the project beyond the current administration. Projects such as these also counter another familiar municipal platitude, that the industry is intent on holding back development. IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, not to mention the phone and cable companies all benefit when more people use broadband. It is not surprising to see the industry lining up behind non-profit, non-government initiatives.

Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.