With all the hoopla around the possibility of Google Fiber – a super fast fiber-optic internet and television service – coming to San Antonio, there has been very little talk about a crucial aspect of this for San Antonio’s or any municipality.

Namely: is Google Fiber going to make it harder for telecommunications and Internet to become a public utility by entrenching Google’s ownership; easier to become a public utility; or is Google Fiber a neutral influence on telecommunications/Internet becoming a public utility? This also begs the question: Is it even a good idea for telecommunications and the Internet to be a public utility?

To be clear, by “public utility,” I mean a system – the telecommunications system in this case – owned by a government, such as a city, county or state, or even by the federal government. At the federal level, for example, there could be a “Department of Telecommunications” created – just as there is a Department of Agriculture, Education, Energy, and so forth.

I searched the Internet (somewhat ironically) for an expert who could provide some insight to these questions, and came across an article written by Bill Schrier called, “Why Google Fiber will never come to Seattle.”

Bill Schrier
Bill Schrier, senior policy advisor to the CIO of the State of Washington.

Bill Schrier, it turns out, is the former chief technology officer (CIO) for the City of Seattle, retired in 2012, and is now senior policy advisor to the CIO of the State of Washington. Schrier received his master’s degree in public administration from Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle. His credentials seem to qualify him as an expert, so I wrote Schrier via e-mail, and here is what he has to say:

“Google fiber will definitely make it harder for fiber to become a municipal utility,” Schrier stated, directly answering my main question.   “With Google fiber already in the ground in a place like Kansas City or Austin, there is no reason for a city to build a separate fiber to the premise network. And while you may look on Google as a savior because it offers a higher quality service and brings competition to the marketplace, there is no guarantee that will always be the case.

“Google could raise prices, could charge Netflix and NBC fees to deliver their content in a quality fashion, and could become an unregulated monopoly for Internet service. Google is in this to make money – lots of money – not to do consumers and businesses any favors.”

Regarding my other questions – i.e., is it even a good idea for telecommunications and the Internet to be a public utility, and why? – Schrier provided valuable insights in favor of it becoming a publicly-owned utility. He also writes, however, that there is some benefit to having Google Fiber, at least in our present system, though our present system seems far from ideal.

To quote Schrier’s email at length:

“In my ideal world, governments would build municipal fiber utilities to reach every home and business. This has been done in some places such as Chattanooga and Lafayette, LA. The idea is that the government owns the fiber cables, just like government owns streets. Then any private company can offer services across those fiber cables; internet access, video service (IP-TV and/or cable television), telephone service, security services (alarming) and so forth. A consumer could, then, have multiple competing internet service providers to choose from, driving quality of service higher and costs lower. This is just like a delivery service. You can choose FedEx, UPS, the Postal Service to deliver stuff to your house on the public street.

“Of course the problem with that model is that existing telecommunications and cable companies already have wires to homes and already offer most of those services. I don’t like this for two reasons: first, there is little competition – usually you only have two companies to choose from for Internet service. There is little incentive to offer faster internet service or to lower the price. Second, the company owning the wires also can own the content – that’s why you are forced to take a package of 100 cable channels when you only really want or need a few.

Map of current and potential Google Fiber cities.
Map of current and potential Google Fiber cities.

“Plus, the cable company can discriminate in favor of its own content. In the case of Comcast, which owns NBC, all NBC-related content could flow into your house faster, while any competing content would be slower (jerkier when seen on a TV) unless the other content paid Comcast a fee for quality delivery. This is exactly what Netflix agreed to do with Comcast. And, as you probably know, cable companies have the worst customer service as measured on almost every customer survey…

“Still, having three companies (Google, the local telecom and the local cable company) compete for service is definitely better than just two. So, overall, Google fiber is a positive factor for cities, consumers and businesses.”

Bill Schrier’s description of municipally-owned fiber infrastructure agrees with technology expert and author Susan P. Crawford‘s important book, “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.”

In interviews, Crawford describes the benefits of a publicly-owned telecommunications industry, using Seoul, South Korea as an example of a city which is able to provide the Internet for $30 a month, specifically because it’s fiber cable ring is municipally-owned.

Here she talks about how broadband as a publicly-owned utility works, which is similar to Mr. Schrier’s description.

Schrier has described cities that have no publicly-owned fiber systems in place, but San Antonio already has a municipally-owned fiber ring built into its infrastructure, ready-to-go. However, the San Antonio Area Broadband Network installed by CPS Energy cannot be used – at least not for San Antonio’s residents – because current Texas laws pushed for by private telecommunications lobbies and enacted by Texas’ conservative state legislature forbids municipalities from providing telecommunications to the public.

If the fiber-optic network was municipally-owned, including the fiber to residents’ homes, more revenue would be raised for the city of San Antonio. This is because the competing private telecommunications companies would pay regular set fees to CPS Energy to use the fiber.

So, I ask, are the people’s of San Antonio and the city government’s hands tied to do anything about it? What is needed to overturn the state’s restrictions? San Antonio residents just added sexual orientation/identity to its non-discrimination ordinance. Perhaps the people’s access to its city’s own assets is next.

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Michael White

Michael White was born in San Antonio; lived in Massachusetts in his 20s, and San Francisco in his 30s; and is now living in San Antonio majoring in Public Administration at UTSA and running his own small...