Petition seeks to remove limits on Internet providers

Petition seeks to remove limits on Internet providers

BY Nancy Hicks

A petition drive that would allow Nebraska cities and public utility companies to provide high-speed Internet service to residents has begun.

According to Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska and a supporter of the petition drive, the petition route is the only way the public is going to be able to get access to potentially lower-cost high-speed Internet.

The Legislature, influenced by the telecommunications lobby, has been unwilling to allow such competition, he and other supporters say. Sponsors of the initiative petition are Linda Aerni and Paul Schumacher, both involved in the Columbus-based Community Internet Systems, an Internet service company.

Common Cause Nebraska has not taken an official stand on the petition, but Gould said he supports the proposal.

“I would certainly sign a petition,” he said. “Without a doubt, the prohibitions in state law keeping public utilities out of this area need to be removed.”

In 2006, the Legislature created a two-year ban on public utilities’ involvement in Internet access and created a task force to study the issue.

That task force, which petition supporters say was stacked with opponents of public utility competition, determined that competition was bad.

A majority of the task force concluded that public sector involvement could dampen private investment in broadband services.

The majority also said it wasn’t convinced that allowing public utilities to provide access to high-speed Internet would significantly improve service.

Nebraska is well-covered, said Eric Carstenson, president of the Nebraska Telecommunications Association, with broadband access throughout all the major municipalities in the state.

“We don’t see any need for government to be in that segment and competing with private industry.”

Gould disagrees.

Allowing public utilities to get involved would bring better, cheaper service to very rural areas more quickly than is being done by private businesses concerned about profit, Gould said.

In addition, he said, cities could provide alternatives to cable and telephone Internet access and help drive down costs to consumers quickly.

A developing technology known as broadband over power lines could allow customers to get access to high-speed Internet by plugging their computers into common electrical outlets.

The new technology is making the service available and inexpensive in cities such as Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., he said.

“Nebraska has publically owned utilities that could provide that service at a low cost. But these guys (private companies) want to gouge the public for as long as they can,” Gould said.

Carstenson said it is relatively widely accepted that an electric utility can put broadband over its power lines, and it works well in populated areas but not so well in rural areas.

Petition supporters have started gathering signatures through volunteers and later will consider using paid circulators, Schumacher said.

They’ll need to gather signatures from about 90,000 Nebraska voters by early July to get the proposal on the November 2008 ballot.

The proposal would open the telecommunications door widely to public utilities.

One bill, rejected by the Nebraska Legislature, would have allowed public utilities to sell services only at the wholesale level.

This petition proposal allows utilities to sell directly to customers at the retail level and to compete along the whole range of telecommunications services – from telephone and cable to broadband high-speed Internet.

Date: 10/21/2007 12:00:00 AM