Should power companies offer Internet?

Friday, April 29, 2005

Nebraskans like to work together for the common good. Nebraskans also like to be able to make a living. That's the Catch-22 that has dogged the state since its earliest settlement.

The latest manifestation was before the Nebraska Legislature on Thursday, as senators debated whether to allow public power companies to compete with private telecommunication companies by offering Internet service over existing electric power lines.

The ability to have broadband Internet service over existing power lines is an intriguing idea -- imagine video, audio and even telephone service coming into your home over one pipeline -- the electrical wires. Until recently, which until recently has faced major technological hurdles.

New computer chips, however, use radio waves to get around transformer interference, and about 15 U.S. power companies are offering Internet service on a trial basis. The idea is also picking up steam in the European Union.

Naturally, cable and telecom companies are fighting government action to allow new competition, but it's an especially difficult question in Nebraska. Much of our sparsely populated state already has broadband service, most of it built by private industry that deserves a fair return on its investment.

And, while in other states it's a question of whether to allow competition between private companies, in Nebraska, where all the electrical utilities are publicly owned, it's a matter of private industry facing competition from a utility that has less pressure to make a profit, has tax advantages and public financing.

As part of a compromise, LB645 was amended to bar public power companies from offering broadband through the end of 2007, other public entities such as municipalities would be barred indefinitely, and a task force would be required to issue a report by Dec. 1, 2006.

The whole issue may be moot, according to some observers who expect the entire broadband industry to go wireless in a few years. Whatever the final outcome, the Legislature should do whatever will be best for the consumer.

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