Blocks on road to the Net

July 20, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

NORFOLK, Neb. -- There was lots of excitement last year at the Norfolk Library when a high-speed, broadband telecommunications line was linked to the library's bank of computers.

Users anxious to access Internet sites at virtually instant speed, avoiding what's derisively called the World Wide Wait, came flocking in. Indeed, they showed up in such numbers that their usage had to be limited by egg timers.

They're still flocking to the Norfolk Library -- over 1,000 a month, way ahead of predictions.

Come July 29, though, they're in for a bitter disappointment. That's the date, under order of the Nebraska Public Utilities Commission, that the cord has to be yanked, the high-speed service stopped. The library's computers will revert to clunky 28- or 56-baud modem speed.

Why the cutoff? It turns out Norfolk has been getting the rapid service by leasing an unused fiber-optic cable, running from the Iowa border, a line actually owned by the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD).

Baby Bell pressure

But US West, the Baby Bell, cried foul. It went to the Nebraska Public Services Commission and got a ruling that the service had to stop because the NPPD "lacks authority to engage in the business of providing telecommunications services for hire."

US West would be glad to provide rapid-speed service, too -- but only at a cost many times as high.

Norfolk officials are burning mad. As they see it, state regulators -- including some who've accepted campaign contributions from employees of US West and other utilities -- are simply giving into pressures of the telephone company, a monopoly provider.

"We're just trying to get high-speed, low-cost communications for the economic and social benefit of our citizens, and everyone -- US West, PSC, the legislature -- is slamming the door in our face," City Administrator Michael Nolan claims.

The conflict touches a thicket of regulatory and legal issues -- affected, but not fully resolved, by the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996.

High-speed, broadband service is becoming a competitive standard for our times. It's proving indispensable for the Internet, business communication, telemedicine and distance learning to work at full efficiency. Compare it, if you will, to being located on a river or a rail line or close to an interstate highway. Or getting electric service in a distant town or rural area.

Small wonder it's stirring controversy. On one side, anxious to capture as much of the new business as they can, are the telephone companies. They're so powerful in some legislatures (Texas, Missouri and Arkansas, for example) they've even gotten laws passed forbidding city agencies from offering such service.

On the other hand are impatient cities, publicly owned power companies and consumer advocates who are unwilling to wait years until the telcos offer high-speed service -- and even more years until they make it affordable in less profitable rural areas.

Tacoma, Wash., Glasgow, Ky., Cedar Falls and Hawarden, Iowa, are examples of cities that have forged ahead, creating their own high-speed communications, always at rates far below the telephone companies.

And the unpretentious river town of South Sioux City, Neb., under an entrepreneurial city administrator, Lance Hedquist, has concluded a pioneering agreement with a cable provider. The city is laying fiber optic all around town. The cable service will then make coaxial cable connections from the fiber ring into every home or business that wants the service.

What South Sioux City will offer, at very modest fees, is little short of breathtaking: Fastest-yet-available Internet service. Cable television and premium TV services. Building security. Quick home banking. Meter reading. Home-to-school direct connections.

Plus, instant and easy contact with local government itself -- citizens able to communicate with all elected city and county officials, to get building and fence permits, report crimes, access almost any kind of community information that exists.

With fiber-optic lines, similar service could be extended to smaller and smaller towns and rural locations -- permitting their businesses, entrepreneurs, farmers and schools to ride the information superhighway right along with, sometimes ahead of, densely packed urban America.

Distance learning, for example, can help provide specialized courses to remote towns, allowing them to keep their own schools open -- and providing high-quality content.

Profit margins

So why can't, won't, the telephone companies meet all this demand at reasonable prices? One answer: They're under ferocious market pressure to show strong profits or get swallowed by competitors. The original seven Baby Bells are already down to four. So why, they calculate, be generous to rural areas, or towns off the beaten track, if you don't have to?

The bottom line for communities: Look to your own interest, not the telephone companies first. Start competing in the information age, and pressuring states and Washington to let you. Your alternative is indeed to be marooned, unconnected, increasingly uncompetitive.

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/20/98

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