Government overreach into the broadband market has recently become increasingly popular in the Sunshine State. According to a recent report from the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), cities, counties and states around the country have poured millions of dollars into government-owned broadband networks (GONs), which not only are often a waste of taxpayer money but also compete unfairly with private enterprise.

In 2011, the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council (SWFRPC) was supplied with a federal grant to work with planning councils in Tampa and Orlando and create “Broadband Florida,” a program that will build government-owned networks throughout those areas.

I personally attended an Aug. 21 public meeting held by SWFRPC. I asked the board how spending would break down between local, state and federal authorities and whether they would put special policies in place to protect taxpayers and private job creators. I didn’t get many answers and received few guarantees this network would not devolve into a nightmare like the ones NTU illustrated in their report.

We believe government is ill-equipped to run and keep up with the ever-changing technology needed to operate a successful, high-speed broadband network. In short, government has no experience running these systems. The cost to update these networks is impossible to accurately estimate, and many GONs—like most government projects—have underestimated taxpayers’ investment to build and operate said networks.

Admittedly, the SWFRPC meeting included a recommended non-compete clause, however history shows local leaders often grant government-owned networks perks such as special tax and regulatory advantages, further relying on taxpayers and less on creating leading technologies. These types of subsidies discourage the private market from continuing to invest in Florida.

The R Street Institute believes GONs should be treated no differently than their private competitors. They should be subject to the same laws, rules and regulations, and they should not receive preferential tax treatment, preferential access to rights-of-way or subsidized rates that make them cheaper than private carriers.

R Street recommends allowing government-owned networks to be limited only to under-served areas. During this economically constrained environment, when local governments are cutting funding on everything from law enforcement to education, taxpayer dollars should not go to fund services that the private sector can provide. Additionally, these networks should have an exit strategy provision to encourage the private sector to eventually enter these areas. Without this type of stipulation, private enterprise would assume the existence of a government-created monopoly, leaving no incentive for investment. Less competition results in less job creation, fewer new technologies, and less state tax revenues from private companies.

R Street does not dispute the fact that broadband development would obviously benefit areas that currently do not have Internet service, but given the questionable track record of so many GONs, taxpayers deserve basic answers for a service they will pay for in the future.

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