Should the Government be in the ISP Business?

More and more municipal and county governments across the country are getting into the Internet provider business. It started out simply enough, with free access to Internet-connected computers at local libraries. That's relatively inexpensive, since the cities usually already have an Internet connection for the use of employees. Putting a few public computers on the network was no big deal, and it allowed citizens who couldn't afford computers and 'net connections to have a way to get online.

Of course, those entities soon found that it wasn't quite as simple as that. They had to contend with a slew of new issues, such as whether the computers should be filtered to prevent access to pornography and other undesirable content, how to keep them from becoming infected with viruses and worms, how to prevent their being used for illegal activities such as child porn or terrorist communications, etc.

Then wireless networking took off and the equipment to set up and use it became inexpensive and almost ubiquitous, what with almost all portable computers that you buy today having built-in wireless network interface cards and modern operating systems making it easy to connect to a wi-fi network - sometimes without even intending to.

A number of local governments then took it upon themselves to fund wireless networks covering some or all of a city or county, where citizens could use their own computers to connect to the Internet for a small fee or even at no cost at all. At first glance, it sounds like a great idea: Internet access for everybody.

But as last Thursday's edition of the Wall Street Journal reported, once again cities are finding that it's not as simple as they expected. Many of the projects are going over budget - and it's the taxpayers who have to pay for that overage. Some of them aren't too happy about it. According to the journal, the cost of building a wi-fi network for a large city can be tens of millions of dollars.

Private Internet service providers aren't thrilled with the idea of having the government compete with them for customers, either - especially when the government service is subsidized by taxpayers and so can be offered to users at a lower cost than a traditional ISP can afford to charge.

These city-wide wireless services can face other problems, too. Outdoor equipment is subject to damage from weather and subsequent outages. How reliable will they be? How many users will prefer to keep their traditional wired broadband services such as cable and DSL rather than subscribe to a city- owned service, even if the latter does cost less?

Privacy concerns are another big issue with government-owned networks. If you connect to a wi-fi network owned by the city, will city employees be able to read the email that you send through it or see what web sites you've visited? There is an implicit trust that we put in our ISPs who, after all, have control of the servers we use to connect and in many cases are technologically able to look at everything we send through those servers. Do we trust the government just as much?

Some folks argue that Internet service should be run by the government because it's a necessity, like other utilities. Yet in many areas, other utilities such as electricity are provided by private companies, not the city. Cable service is almost always provided by a private company. Services such as garage pickup for which cities are responsible are being contracted out by more and more of them. Water and sewer services are, in many cases, the only remaining utilities that cities provide directly.

What do you think? Do you, as a taxpayer, want the city or county to spend tax dollars to build city-wide networks, or is something you think is best left in the hands of the private sector? If you think cities should be ISPs, should service be "free" (fully taxpayer funded) or should it be self-supporting from fees charged to those who use it? Would you personally use a city-provided Internet service, or would concerns about privacy, reliability and performance cause you to keep your traditional provider even if such a service was available in your area? Or do you already have such service, and if so, do you love it or hate it (or somewhere in between)?

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