Reply to Glenn Fleishman

Published February 6, 2006

Dallas/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Dear Editor:

Over the weekend, Glenn Fleishman posted on “Wi-Fi Network News” a letter to the editor he apparently submitted to you in response to my opinion-editorial, “Municipalities should stay out of this,” which you very kindly ran in your Sunday edition.

In case you are tempted to print Fleishman’s article, or (worse) allow him to persuade you that perhaps you erred in letting me appear on your pages, I thought I should write a quick response to the claims he makes.

Fleishman’s Web site is ad-supported by Tropos Networks, a big player in municipal wireless, and not surprisingly he writes frequently as an advocate of municipal broadband. He’s not a neutral observer. I am paid by The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit organization with an annual budget approaching $3 million, to discover and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems. Heartland addresses a wide range of issues, receives funding from some 1,500 donors, and receives no more than 5 percent of its budget from any one corporate donor.

Fleishman tries to discredit my organization by connecting it with a publication produced by the New Millennium Research Council (NMRC), which in turn he ties to a PR firm, which he says has telecommunications firms among its clients. I think this is bizarre.

Heartland has no relationship at all with the NMRC. We didn’t “produce” the report in question and didn’t help release it. One of Heartland’s senior fellows contributed, without being paid, a chapter to a report released by NMRC. That’s the entire extent of the relationship. I know nothing more about NMRC than what I’ve read in Fleishman’s columns. And I don’t refer to or rely on that report in my op-ed.

Fleishman says my examples of failed municipal communications networks are all fiber optic networks, which are expensive to build. New proposals, he says, use cheaper Wi-Fi technology and are more likely to succeed. This is bizarre, too, since until a few months ago, every municipal communications network in the country and virtually all of the proposals on the table were fiber optic systems. What systems could we have studied?

Fleishman says Dr. Ron Rizzuto, Steven Titch, and I use “outdated financial information,” don’t use generally accepted accounting principles, and look at only selected communities. All of this is wrong and rebutted in our research papers. We invariably cite the latest financial reports from the largest and longest-lived municipal communications networks in the country, and we provide readers with several measures of financial performance and let them decide which one provides the most useful snapshot of the utilities’ financial conditions.

The entrance of Wi-Fi to the broadband arena does, as Fleishman writes, change the debate over municipal broadband. Rizzuto, Titch, and I have reported the dramatic difference in cost and changes to business plans that the technology is causing. While municipal Wi-Fi costs less and is therefore a less risky investment for taxpayers, it also delivers a smaller and less desirable bundle of services. Since there is a fast-growing and competitive private marketplace for Wi-Fi, the case for municipalization may be weaker, not stronger, than the case for fiber networks.

Finally, Fleishman claims I “lack the interest” in writing reports on successful municipal broadband systems or defending my research in open forums. This may be the most bizarre of Fleishman’s claims because Heartland has produced more independent analysis of the finances of municipal communications systems than any other organization, yet criticism of our work rarely rises above ad hominem attacks written by corporate shills.

Heartland spokespersons have debated proponents of municipal broadband at the National Conference of State Legislatures, National Governors Association, American Legislative Exchange Council, at conferences in California, Illinois, and Michigan, and other places. It’s almost embarrassing how bad a job the proponents of municipal broadband do … when they dare to show up.

As I wrote in my op-ed, the municipal broadband movement is driven by anti-corporate emotionalism and little else. Fleishman’s letter to the editor is typical of the kind of emails I have come to expect whenever my work appears in print, though more polite. The public deserves a better debate of the issue–on this I do agree with Fleishman–but that debate isn’t taking place due to the advocates of municipalization, not its critics.

Joseph L. Bast

Joseph L. Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute.