Reject Longmont Public Wi-Fi Measure

Published October 7, 2011

“When will they ever learn?” is a plaintive war protest-song refrain from back in the day, but perhaps it requires a contemporary update in light of Longmont’s ballot initiative to resurrect a municipal wi-fi service.

For those who may have forgotten, the ill-advised specter of a City of Longmont-operated wi-fi system first arose 15 years ago. The 18-mile fiber system never made it out of the starting blocks, however, as first one then another private company failed in their attempts to run the network before succumbing to bankruptcy. A third provider arguably “won” a bid to operate the system in 2009 before wise voters finally pulled the plug the same year.

Based on this narrative, one would think the entire matter had been settled. Kaput, fold your tents, cut your losses, and move on–settled.

Yet here comes the city government once again with yet another attempt to reanimate the corpse, bringing to mind the definition of insanity as repeating the same act over and over with the anticipation of different results–except there’s plenty of empirical evidence from similar publicly funded wi-fi boondoggles throughout the nation going bust to accompany Longmont’s long, fumbling history.

To be fair, not all muni wi-fi systems fast-tracked it to oblivion. For example, Chattanooga, Tennessee launched what’s billed as the nation’s fastest fiber network just this year–but the city’s dismal 1G speed hardly recommends it as an alternative to the 3G and 4G wireless broadband services provided by private competitors.

Publicly funded wi-fi–or, for that matter, any other service in which government entities directly compete against the private sector–is both unnecessary and unfair. Private companies shoulder the burden of investments and innovations, and one misstep could induce customers to jump to a competitor’s client list or even put the company out of business entirely. A faux pas in a heavily government-subsidized operation, by contrast, seldom elicits more than an “oops” from unaccountable public bureaucrats administering the programs with taxpayer dollars. If you have no skin in the game, there’s no incentive to strive for customer satisfaction.

If the city government is allowed to proceed with this unnecessary system, not only will Longmont citizens suffer, but so will the companies with which the government wi-fi system will unfairly compete. As written, the ballot issue would enable the city to offer wi-fi services directly or lease fiber to private providers who would be granted access to a network built with taxpayer dollars. Since Longmont already regulates existing privately operated providers, this would render the city both regulator and competitor.

In addition, the ballot issue appears to have no provision prohibiting the city from cross-subsidizing its wi-fi service with the Longmont public power utility, a potentially lucrative break not enjoyed (nor should it be) by the private sector. Moreover, the city government hasn’t divulged how it will fund, maintain, or operate the service if the ballot measure passes, apparently adopting the “Nancy Pelosi defense” by telling voters they need to pass the measure to find out what’s in it.

Finally, the city hasn’t handed in its homework by conducting an assessment of whether Longmont even needs any services not already delivered by other providers. Instead of bolstering their cause by conducting a study quantifying Longmont’s current and future needs or whether gaps in service exist, the government simply seems hell-bent on ramrodding into practice a service that is redundant, unnecessary, and a proven loser in the past in Longmont and nearly everywhere else it’s been implemented.

“When will they ever learn?”–taken from a long-ago song for peace–should be a battle cry for the good people of Longmont, followed by the citizens’ charge: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.