Petition could open up Internet service unfairly

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

It's a classic clash between the private and public sectors, and one that's unique to Nebraska.

The private sector has prevailed so far in broadband Internet service for Nebraska, but a situation has developed where voters may help give the public sector an unfair advantage.

As the only provider of electrical power to the state, public utilities like the Nebraska Public Power District are in the unique position of being hard-wired into virtually every business place and inhabited dwelling in the state.

If they were allowed to offer broadband Internet service over those wires -- as new technology is making possible -- they would have a leg up in competing against providers that rely on more traditional telephone or cable television lines or even pricier satellite Internet service.

As a result, following the recommendation of a task force, the Legislature forever banned public power entities from providing direct, retail Internet service, as well as banning them from making wholesale services available until the end of 2007.

Now, a dissenting member of the Internet task force has helped start a petition that would put the issue before the voters.

Linda Aerni, president of a Columbus-based Internet company and member of the Legislature's task force, is confident enough signatures -- about 80,000 registered voters -- can be gathered to put the issue on the ballot in 2008.

If that happens, and if the voters approve, not only will the public power districts be allowed to provide wholesale broadband Internet service, but, as allowed by the petition, direct retail service as well.

Broadband Internet, provided over electrical power lines, is a promising technology that should be given a chance to prove itself in a free market, to the benefit of the consumer. But its success shouldn't come at the expense of entrepreneurship and private investment in infrastructure.

There might be an alternative, such as setting up a demonstration project for Internet customers in an under-served area.

Instead of throwing the doors wide open, as the petition would do, such a limited trial would give the technology a chance to prove itself, while giving regulators and private industry time to catch up.

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