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When public infrastructure goes private

Google is bringing a fiber-optic data network to homeowners in Kansas City, Mo., and Kan., but without the usual regulations. That means underprivileged neighborhoods may be left in the digital dust.

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The U.S. Postal Service is based on the notion that essential infrastructure should be available to all. But you can kiss that notion goodbye, because today’s model of building public infrastructure is to let private companies like Google do it., Justin Lane, European Pressphoto Agency

Consider some of the things that have bound our nation together:

Universal postal service at a flat rate, whether you live in Santa Monica or Sitka, Alaska. Interstate highways, built with taxpayer funds and free of tolls. Regulated phone and electric service, with lifeline rates for the economically disadvantaged.

These were all based on a social contract honoring the notion that essential infrastructure should be available to all — indeed, that those normally left by the side of the economic road might be most in need.

But you can kiss that notion goodbye, because today's model of building public infrastructure is to let private companies do it.

Americans are becoming more dependent on privately operated toll roads to get where we're going, and on private delivery services like FedEx and UPS to carry our parcels. But the greatest shift has occurred in the sector that is most crucial in the information age: communications and data networks.

That brings us to Google — as happens sooner or later with any discussion touching on digital technology. The Mountain View, Calif., behemoth has branched into the Internet service business by introducing a fiber-optic data network for homeowners in Kansas City, Mo., and its neighboring namesake in Kansas.

The service, which is expected to be fully functional by the end of this year, is upending the traditional business and regulatory model for phone, video and data communications. But Google managed to exempt itself from the regulations that typically force cable companies to wire all neighborhoods, rich, poor and in between, for the Internet. The result threatens to leave underprivileged neighborhoods in the digital dust.

Ceding such a crucial service to a private company with minimal regulation is something that happened with virtually no public discussion about its implications for society.

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