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Municipal broadband has been heavily promoted by its advocates as a potential source of competition against Internet service providers (“ISPs”) with market power. Jonathan Sallet argued in Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, for instance, that municipal broadband has a huge role to play in boosting broadband competition, with attendant lower prices, faster speeds, and economic development. 

Municipal broadband, of course, can mean more than one thing: From “direct consumer” government-run systems, to “open access” where government builds the back-end, but leaves it up to private firms to bring the connections to consumers, to “middle mile” where the government network reaches only some parts of the community but allows private firms to connect to serve other consumers. The focus of this blog post is on the “direct consumer” model.

There have been many economic studies on municipal broadband, both theoretical and empirical. The literature largely finds that municipal broadband poses serious risks to taxpayers, often relies heavily on cross-subsidies from government-owned electric utilities, crowds out private ISP investment in areas it operates, and largely fails the cost-benefit analysis. While advocates have defended municipal broadband on the grounds of its speed, price, and resulting attractiveness to consumers and businesses, others have noted that many of those benefits come at the expense of other parts of the country from which businesses move. 

What this literature has not touched upon is a more fundamental problem: municipal broadband lacks the price signals necessary for economic calculation.. The insights of the Austrian school of economics helps explain why this model is incapable of providing efficient outcomes for society. Rather than creating a valuable source of competition, municipal broadband creates “islands of chaos” undisciplined by the market test of profit-and-loss. As a result, municipal broadband is a poor model for promoting competition and innovation in broadband markets. 

The importance of profit-and-loss to economic calculation

One of the things often assumed away in economic analysis is the very thing the market process depends upon: the discovery of knowledge. Knowledge, in this context, is not the technical knowledge of how to build or maintain a broadband network, but the more fundamental knowledge which is discovered by those exercising entrepreneurial judgment in the marketplace. 

This type of knowledge is dependent on prices throughout the market. In the market process, prices coordinate exchange between market participants without each knowing the full plan of anyone else. For consumers, prices allow for the incremental choices between different options. For producers, prices in capital markets similarly allow for choices between different ways of producing their goods for the next stage of production. Prices in interest rates help coordinate present consumption, investment, and saving. And, the price signal of profit-and-loss allows producers to know whether they have cost-effectively served consumer needs. 

The broadband marketplace can’t be considered in isolation from the greater marketplace in which it is situated. But it can be analyzed under the framework of prices and the knowledge they convey.

For broadband consumers, prices are important for determining the relative importance of Internet access compared to other felt needs. The quality of broadband connection demanded by consumers is dependent on the price. All other things being equal, consumers demand faster connections with less latency issues. But many consumers may prefer slower speeds and connections with more latency if it is cheaper. Even choices between the importance of upload speeds versus download speeds may be highly asymmetrical if determined by consumers.  

While “High Performance Broadband for All” may be a great goal from a social planner’s perspective, individuals acting in the marketplace may prioritize other needs with his or her scarce resources. Even if consumers do need Internet access of some kind, the benefits of 100 Mbps download speeds over 25 Mbps, or upload speeds of 100 Mbps versus 3 Mbps may not be worth the costs. 

For broadband ISPs, prices for capital goods are important for building out the network. The relative prices of fiber, copper, wireless, and all the other factors of production in building out a network help them choose in light of anticipated profit. 

All the decisions of broadband ISPs are made through the lens of pursuing profit. If they are successful, it is because the revenues generated are greater than the costs of production, including the cost of money represented in interest rates. Just as importantly, loss shows the ISPs were unsuccessful in cost-effectively serving consumers. While broadband companies may be able to have losses over some period of time, they ultimately must turn a profit at some point, or there will be exit from the marketplace. Profit-and-loss both serve important functions.

Sallet misses the point when he states the“full value of broadband lies not just in the number of jobs it directly creates or the profits it delivers to broadband providers but also in its importance as a mechanism that others use across the economy and society.” From an economic point of view, profits aren’t important because economists love it when broadband ISPs get rich. Profits are important as an incentive to build the networks we all benefit from, and a signal for greater competition and innovation.

Municipal broadband as islands of chaos

Sallet believes the lack of high-speed broadband (as he defines it) is due to the monopoly power of broadband ISPs. He sees the entry of municipal broadband as pro-competitive. But the entry of a government-run broadband company actually creates “islands of chaos” within the market economy, reducing the ability of prices to coordinate disparate plans of action among participants. This, ultimately, makes society poorer.

The case against municipal broadband doesn’t rely on greater knowledge of how to build or maintain a network being in the hands of private engineers. It relies instead on the different institutional frameworks within which the manager of the government-run broadband network works as compared to the private broadband ISP. The type of knowledge gained in the market process comes from prices, including profit-and-loss. The manager of the municipal broadband network simply doesn’t have access to this knowledge and can’t calculate the best course of action as a result.

This is because the government-run municipal broadband network is not reliant upon revenues generated by free choices of consumers alone. Rather than needing to ultimately demonstrate positive revenue in order to remain a going concern, government-run providers can instead base their ongoing operation on access to below-market loans backed by government power, cross-subsidies when it is run by a government electric utility, and/or public money in the form of public borrowing (i.e. bonds) or taxes. 

Municipal broadband, in fact, does rely heavily on subsidies from the government. As a result, municipal broadband is not subject to the discipline of the market’s profit-and-loss test. This frees the enterprise to focus on other goals, including higher speeds—especially upload speeds—and lower prices than private ISPs often offer in the same market. This is why municipal broadband networks build symmetrical high-speed fiber networks at higher rates than the private sector.

But far from representing a superior source of “competition,” municipal broadband is actually an example of “predatory entry.” In areas where there is already private provision of broadband, municipal broadband can “out-compete” those providers due to subsidies from the rest of society. Eventually, this could lead to exit by the private ISPs, starting with the least cost-efficient to the most. In areas where there is limited provision of Internet access, the entry of municipal broadband could reduce incentives for private entry altogether. In either case, there is little reason to believe municipal broadband actually increases consumer welfarein the long run.

Moreover, there are serious concerns in relying upon municipal broadband for the buildout of ISP networks. While Sallet describes fiber as “future-proof,” there is little reason to think that it is. The profit motive induces broadband ISPs to constantly innovate and improve their networks. Contrary to what you would expect from an alleged monopoly industry, broadband companies are consistently among the highest investors in the American economy. Similar incentives would not apply to municipal broadband, which lacks the profit motive to innovate. 

Conclusion

There is a definite need to improve public policy to promote more competition in broadband markets. But municipal broadband is not the answer. The lack of profit-and-loss prevents the public manager of municipal broadband from having the price signal necessary to know it is serving the public cost-effectively. No amount of bureaucratic management can replace the institutional incentives of the marketplace.