Editorial: Fiber optic risks, rewards
Given that the John Locke Foundation is a conservative-leaning, minimalist-government think tank, it’s no surprise the Raleigh-based group would find much to fault in the city of Salisbury’s decision to set up a fiber-optic cable system. Expecting otherwise would be akin to believing the Sierra Club might endorse open-pit coal mining.
That isn’t to suggest the arguments raised in the foundation’s recent “brief” are trivial or fatally skewed by an ideological bias. In fact, similar concerns have been raised previously, either by skeptics here in Salisbury or in other municipalities that have attempted similar ventures. They include assertions that the city’s projected subscription rates and revenue estimates are overly optimistic and taxpayers will end up paying the difference if the project falls short. There’s also the caveat that in the rapidly evolving field of communication technology, it’s dangerous to put your money on one particular vehicle. These risks are real.
But the crux of the foundation’s opposition centers as much on political philosophy as finances: From the Lockean viewpoint, governments simply shouldn’t be venturing into areas where they may potentially compete with the private sector, such as Time-Warner or another cable or telecom company. Rather than branching out into fiber-optics, the thinking goes, municipalities should stick to the traditional knitting of water and sewer services, garbage pickup and fire and police protection. After all, they face challenges enough in reliably delivering those services while holding the line on taxes and fees.
In an ideal world, that might be the case. In an ideal world, we’d also have cable companies beating down the door (and bidding against one another) to extend fiber-optic to homes and businesses in smaller communities such as Salisbury, which run the risk of being left in the dust of the 21st century information highway. Market forces are a vital part of a capitalistic economy. But market forces concentrate on maximizing profits for investors, not growing a well-wired community with high-speed connectivity to the rest of the world.
Obviously, there are no guarantees and, going forward, city officials need to keep taxpayers apprised of both costs and benefits. City officials say they’ve done their homework and are confident the customers will be there. They dispute the assertion they’ve been led down the fiber-optic path by consultants’ rosey projections. They believe the $30 million project will not only pay for itself but yield longterm dividends by promoting economic growth.
Is that a pipedream or a solid investment in a new form of public infrastructure? When it comes to the direction of technology, nobody has a broadband crystal ball, but high-speed Internet connectivity is increasingly a requirement for many businesses. It also benefits individuals who want the speedy transmission of large quantities of data. That doesn’t necessarily mean municipalities are the optimal providers for small-town fiber optic ó at this point, the track record is thin and spotty. But if this really is the communications equivalent of the interstate highway system, Salisbury can’t afford to be left behind without an on-ramp.