Science & Technology

Should the Government Provide Matt Yglesias With High-Speed Internet Service?


In the course of implying that perhaps we ought to have a "public option" for broadband, Matt Yglesias writes:

Lots of places in the United States are as dense as Stockholm, and in Sweden the average is 18.2 mbps, which you won't find anywhere in this country.

If he's suggesting that average speeds in the U.S. don't generally reach 18.2 mbps, I'm fairly certain he's right. But it's not true that such speeds aren't offered: Verizon's FiOS, for example, offers top speeds of 15, 25, and 50 mbps. Cablevision offers its customers downstream speeds of up to 30mbps

Matt also writes that his local options for high-speed Internet are pretty thin:

It's no coincidence that the cable company is always a go-to liberal example of private sector dysfunction. I would ditch Comcast in favor of a rival cable company except . . . there isn't a rival cable company that served by neighborhood. Nor does my window face the right direction for DirectTV. So it's Comcast or nobody, and thus the quality of Comcast's offerings and customer service tends to be extremely bad.

Most people in D.C. use Comcast because, despite its consistently terrible customer service, it offers the fastest Internet connection in the city. But the choice for many D.C. residents is not "Comcast or nobody." For those who hate Comcast enough to switch, there are other broadband options: RCN and Verizon both offer high-speed Internet options to District residents. I don't know Matt's address, so I can't say with absolute certainty whether or not those options are available at his residence, but I do know that, at minimum, Verizon serves the majority of the city's urban-residential core—the Chinatown, Shaw, and U Street neighborhoods where a lot of the city's young professionals live. 

More to the point, as Adam Thierer has extensively documented, municipal Internet service has historically tended to be a pretty terrible idea. Utah's cleverly-titled UTOPIA Internet service was beset with low subscriber rates and insufficient revenue. Chicago backed away from plans to set up a municipal wi-fi network after negotiations proved more difficult than expected and market rates fell. Orlando shut down its wi-fi program when city officials decided that the cost couldn't be justified. San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia have also run into difficulties with their city-run wi-fi projects. 

I sympathize with those who dislike their ISP, and it's probably true that U.S. broadband competition could stand to see some improvement. But there are good reasons to believe that getting the government into the Internet-provider business isn't likely to make those problems any better.