Infrastructure & Politics

18 May

Talking to a lot of government officials at different levels in the last few years has made one thing clear to me: the perceived need for quality broadband is very different at different levels of the political pyramid. Talk to a mayor or local government official, and they're usually quite keen on infrastructure investment, even when it means public investment at a local level. At the very least, they want to have the conversation about the why and the how. 

The higher up you move in the political food chain though, the more this gets diluted. Talk to a cabinet member or a central government official and the discourse will be all about whether people really need better broadband, it will be about "trusting the market". If you can have that discussion at all that is. The current situation in the Western World right now is that many central governments are keen on promising that NGA will happen (even if they have no idea how) while a few local governments are working against the odds and making it happen.

There's been an undercurrent opposition in French political history that dates back to the Revolution betwen Jacobins and Girondins (Girondists in English). The Jacobins want a central government that decides and controls how the country evolves. The Girondins want a bigger amount of power and decision making to be closer to the people and local. I believe that the poor track record in recent telecom infrastructure investment in Europe and North America is largely due to the fact that our western political culture has become more and more Jacobine.

There was an excellent article by Craig Settles on Giga Om last week entitled Google, Kansas City and the Nation's Gigabit Economic Policy. I strongly recommend that you read it. The core argument in this piece is that the windfall from next-generation broadband deployment is local: it's jobs and spending while the network is being built, and it's attracting jobs and boosting the local economy once it's deployed. Therefore, policy should encourage such developments at a local government level instead of trying to think broad sweeping mechanisms that will dilute the financial effort and have little or no economic impact. 

In France, the UK and several other European countries, this Central vs. Local government tussle is in full swing on the topic of NGA. I recently wrote about the efforts of incumbents to keep everything centralized and prevent local government from being subsidized (or, in the case of North Carolina, from being able to invest at all…) There is a fundamentally shocking thing at play here which is that incumbents, often with the support of central governments and regulators scheme to hinder or prevent any kind of NGA investment in areas which they themselves have no intention of investing in, at least not in a reasonable timeframe.

Time is at the core of the equation. Central governments look at the NGA investment nationwide and think it's acceptable if it takes 30 years. Local governments don't, and rightly so: what's the economic and societal impact of being a have not area for the next decades? It's considerable! No wonder local governments are a lot keener on making things happen.

What this all means is that if we want to make NGA (and more generally infrastructure rejuvenation, not just in telecoms) a reality, we need to vote in governments that are more Girondins that Jacobins, that accept that the power to decide and invest must exist at a local level.

Next time you vote, think about it!

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