Can we nationalise utilities?

I have long been interested in broadband (fibre) and now 5G. They form the basis of the interconnected networks and flow of information. Even if we disregard the fact that these were military projects (dual civilian-military purpose), they have had a remarkable impact on humanity. The modern commerce/healthcare/fintech depends on the network availability. If Telemedicine is to become a reality, it will need optimal care points for everyone involved. Technology (and patents) are incredibly complex, with ever burgeoning standards.

In this little backdrop, it would be instructive to know that Canada recently suffered a nasty outage. In the true spirit of socialism, there have been calls to “nationalise” the private assets. I am not sure how moving this into government’s hands will radically transform uptime or “critical assets”; there are several ways to ensure connectivity to the unconnected.

I’d focus on specific issues first:

How to nationalize the internet in Canada – anarcat

In many parts of the world, municipal broadband is an elegant
solution to the problem, with solutions ranging from Stockholm’s city-owned fiber network (dark fiber, layer 1) to Utah’s UTOPIA network (fiber to the premises, layer 2) and
municipal wireless networks like Guifi.net which connects
about 40,000 nodes in Catalonia. The other major challenge here is that the city will need competent engineers to drive this project forward. But this is not different from the way other public utilities run: we have electrical engineers at Hydro, sewer and water engineers at the city, this is just another profession. If anything, the computing science sector might be more at fault than the city here in its failure to provide competent and accountable engineers to society

Municipal Broadband is a “bad” idea. Besides national security implications, it is difficult to fathom that municipalities can have bandwidth (figuratively) to operate a telecom network. Local self governance may resonate across specific geographies and cultural contexts, but running a fibre (and telecom network) with peering arrangements/interconnect agreements) is a complex quagmire, and that will be a time hole and a sink. A specific municipality might have executed a “right of way” for another specialist player, which doesn’t mean you can entrust this to your utility service provider. It is a recipe for disaster. A state owned network provider needs to provide critical backbone and should have clear lines of profitability. If municipal corporations get into service provisions, there will be calls for “subsidies” for the “unconnected” and political considerations will quickly take over the service delivery concerns.

The other fears of “surveillance” are hot air. Everything is under surveillance on the internet, and no one gives a damn about “Snowden’s revelations”, barring some dyed in the wool “liberals” doing selective outrage. You need to have practical ideas and suggestions around service delivery, effective regulation, and provision for fines/attaching assets of those responsible for the service delivery. Services across the spectrum will magically become affordable once you divorce the profits (often insane profits) from service issuance.

Likewise subsidies:

That is despite having a series of subsidies that all avoided investing in our own infrastructure. We had the “fonds de l’autoroute de l’information“, “information highway fund” (site dead since 2003, archive.org link) and “branchez les familles“, “connecting families” (site dead since 2003, archive.org link) which subsidized the development of a copper network. In 2014, more of the same: the federal government poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a program called connecting Canadians to connect 280 000 households to “high speed internet”. And now, the federal and provincial governments are proudly announcing that “everyone is now connected to high speed internet“, after pouring more than 1.1 billion dollars to connect, guess what, another 380 000 homes, right in time for the provincial election.

Someone has to pay for it. Taxes will become worse for everyone involved.

Effective regulation and transparency is the need of the hour. Practical considerations shouldn’t be sacrificed at the altar of common sense.

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