By Thomas Perrin, JMI Public Affairs Director
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Spanish philosopher George Santayana surely didn’t have high-speed broadband in mind when he coined that oft-repeated phrase, but it applies.For almost two decades, policymakers have been trying to close the digital divide – to bring theInternet to all corners of the country no matter how remote. This drive includes access to high-speed broadband. Meanwhile, the private sector has done a good job expanding this access. In 2000, only 3% of Americans had access to high-speedInternet. As of last year, that number had grown to nearly 66%.Unfortunately, some local politicians have hatched elaborate plans to build broadband networks using state taxpayer dollars; many of these projects have received federal backing. That fact still doesn’t make these networks a good idea.Public broadband networks often run terribly over budget, and don’t even end up fulfilling their sponsors’ main goal: to provide universal access to broadband. For example, aUniversityofDenverstudy found nine publicly-owned communications networks inTennesseeleft the utility systems that run them with $176 million in deficits.Right here in Florida, the North Florida Broadband Authority, a federally-funded $30 million project to build a public broadband network, is on its last leg. The situation is so bad that the federal government has suspended payments to the project. Then there is NetQuincy. In 2003, the City ofQuincy spent $3.3 million to build a fiber optic network. The system brought in $415,000 in 2005, less than 60% of its $710,000 in expenses.The creation of these public networks also makes it less likely private providers will ever invest in a community. Why? Because public utilities – including communications networks – rarely have to pay the same taxes or fees or exist under the same regulations as private companies. Stacking the deck in favor of the public over the private almost guarantees communications companies won’t ever move to an area, leaving many consumers without the benefits of the most current technologies. The climate would simply be too unfair.Private-sector companies have succeeded in expanding broadband in ways that no one could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. Meanwhile, recent history shows public broadband networks are costly and often fail. Local lawmakers should remember these lessons and not repeat them.