Stealing From Your Neighbor Through Subsidies   Leave a comment

In 2017, the Montana Public Service Commission approved (4 to 1) the renewal of Commnet Wireless’s Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) certification, authorizing that company to receive a federal “Lifeline” subsidy of $34.25 for every customer on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation – an amount sufficient to render their service free to most users. Previously, this same company received $2.2 million in Universal Service Fund (USF) “high cost” subsidies to build their infrastructure in Rosebud County. This subsidy paid for all of their capital costs in establishing their business, debt-free, while producing for them a tidy annual profit of almost $1 million.

Image result for image of fiber optic cableIt seems that Commnet Wireless is “living the American Dream” – at everyone else’s expense. But that’s not a rare circumstance.

 

The Universal Service Fund was first created by Congress in 1934 then greatly expanded under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Clinton was President). It is funded by a dedicated federal tax on consumer phone bills. This, ironically, makes the very services Congress wishes to expand less affordable, especially to lower-income Americans. The program is premised on the belief that an ever-expanding set of telecommunications services are the “right” of all citizens, and should thus be made “universal” by the generosity of Washington’s re-distributional political class.

The program started with landlines, then expanded to wireless and is now being applied to broadband — and not just any broadband, but high-speed fiber-delivered broadband. The Lifeline program gives away free cell phones and subsidizes low-income and tribal households. The Connect America Fund and “High Cost” programs directly subsidize telephone companies, as well as schools, libraries and rural health care facilities to provide “free” Internet. USF’s total annual budget is currently $10.5 billion, or $84 per American household.

That’s a month of Internet at my home, where I can’t get high-speed broadband because the infrastructure doesn’t exist. We can get “high-speed” DSL that drops out 2-3 times a day because people are making phone calls or cable Internet which is slower than high-speed fiber. I’ve never lived anywhere that offered high-speed broadband because our local Internet providers just don’t see a profit in providing it and permitting laws don’t allow competition. So do I have a “right” to high-speed fiber-delivered broadband? I haven’t died without it up to this point and we’ll pursue that thought further down.

Like all federal programs, USF proceeds blindly with the assumption that shoveling federal dollars at something automatically produces the desired outcomes – outcomes that would not otherwise happen if people were left to spend more of their own money, and the marketplace was allowed to respond to human needs and desires absent government intervention. It’s not surprising to learn then, that the FCC has never reliably measured to what extent the subsidized telecommunications services would have expanded just as much – or more – into the targeted high-cost areas, without any subsidies needed – and done so at lower cost. Dollars spent are considered a successful outcome regardless of actual outcomes.

In Alaska, rural villages and the Native corporations that they own came to the conclusion that, since the cities don’t have fiber-based high-speed broadband yet, the villages would have to provide it for themselves. Internet is currently provided via satellite and it sucks. Several corporations made a decision to contract with Anchorage-based Quintillion for a land- and sea-based fiber-optic cable network with an overall capacity of 30 terabits per second. Each of the five communities in the network currently will have access to up to 200 gigabits of data per second. If demand increases, the capacity can be increased according to Quintillion. It went live December 13. Four other villages will be added this coming summer.

This is a side project to a planned Tokyo to London fiber cable. It’s being financied by Leonard Blavatnik, one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, through the Cooper Investment Fund, but there are also Alaska-based investors including subsidiaries of Native corporations Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and Calista Corp, two of the largest “private” companies in Alaska. Eventually, this cable is expected to provide fiber-delivered Internet to Fairbanks and Anchorage.

So what do we learn from that? The time has come to re-think wealth transfer schemes like the USF, that eliminate price signals, supplant the free market, and create the net effect of increased government dependency and a culture of entitlement. As with any other good or service in a free economy, consumer demand for rural high-speed broadband should be based on the willingness of consumers to pay for the full cost of that service – not based on political pandering that subsidizes one man at another’s expense. A shell game with predetermined winners and losers, lacking any credible metrics and amounting to little more than a glorified multi-billion dollar welfare program.

Saying we “want” something as long as somebody else pays for it is not “demand”. Currently, broadband build-out into high-cost areas is based almost entirely on artificial demand – created by subsidy – rather than on true demand, created by value-seeking consumers in the marketplace, responding to the price signals of true cost. If consumers in outlying areas value fiber-delivered high-speed internet enough to pay the full cost, then we have genuine demand and the market will see to it that these services are provided – without any government involvement.

If consumers are unwilling to pay the true cost, then demand does not exist, and presumably won’t exist until private enterprise finds ways of delivering better service at a lower price. But that incentive disappears when the government steps in. Saying we “want” something as long as somebody else pays for it is not demand. It is little more than theft dressed up by the agency and power of government. Personal responsibility – the foundational principle of a free society – is replaced with “but I want it, so you should pay for it.”

According to my research, you can get high-speed broadband for $30 a month in New York City. Here in Alaska’s second-largest city, I can get slower cable-based Internet for $100 a month — actually, I could get cable Internet for as low as $60 a month, but you can’t watch Netflix without going over the monthly limit. Of course, we don’t have high-speed broadband because the current cost for building broadband or wireless infrastructure into rural and low-population areas is obviously higher on a per-customer basis – perhaps 50 to 100 percent more. One of the fundamental principles of sound economics is the alignment of benefits with costs. When you subsidize a good or service, you can no longer know what people are actually willing to pay as consumers because the government has gotten somebody else to pay for them.

This arrangement tends to convince rural customers that the full price is “unjust” to those who have chosen to live in the country. At the same time, it obstructs the very progress that would bring lower prices about. The subsidized companies have a reduced incentive to economize and to innovate since their profit is all but guaranteed without it.

Public service commissioners everywhere need to understand that it is not the job of the state commissions to rubber stamp federal programs that evidence shows are harmful in the long run to the people they serve. Subsidies like USF produce obvious beneficiaries. Government giveaways always do. They are highly visible. The market-driven benefits produced by those same dollars, left in the hands of those who earned them, are always far greater, but cannot be specifically identified. They become the opportunities lost, the blessings of liberty that were aborted before their birth.

Thus, government creates an illusion of value and benefit, when in reality all it has done is substitute government spending for spending in the marketplace by the frugal, self-interested, wage-earning consumer. The fantasy of a net benefit is bestowed on the person who wasn’t involved in the working or the earning – convinced by politicians that he had it coming all along. Surely, high-speed broadband is in the Constitution somewhere.

Once established, climbing out of the Subsidy Entitlement Pit is never easy. The smoke and mirrors of perceived benefit are so effective, that it becomes very difficult for elected officeholders to do the right thing, by choosing freedom over political security. It is far easier to avoid criticism and “go with the flow.”

To be sure, doing the right thing and doing the easy thing are rarely companions that walk the same path. Doing the right thing requires an extra measure of principle, courage and integrity, something most politicians and government workers lack.

What this comes down to is not just an economic consideration, but also the need to educate people on just what is a “right”. I have no right to anyone else’s stuff. I only have a right to what I can produce myself or trade with others from what I can produce myself.

So, for example, I am a writer and administrator. I make money from both of these endeavors. I can take the money and buy stuff with it, stuff that someone else has produced. One-hundred dollars of my earnings go every month to my cable provider to provide Internet service. I don’t have cable television or this would be the biggest bill in my budget. I get what I get. From the perspective of someone with fiber-delivered high-speed broadband, my Internet service is clunky. But would I be willing to pay $200 a month for fiber? No way! I simply don’t have that sort of wriggle room in my budget. If it were available for that cost, I would continue with the service I have now because I make choices of what to do with my money.

My neighbor says he wants high-speed Internet, but he isn’t willing to pay $200 for it. So, he petitions the cable company and the city government to apply for ETC funds. Pretty soon, my cable bill increases because the company is trying to finance fiber. Also my telephone and cable bill taxes increase. Now, even though I have elected to stay with ordinary Internet service because I don’t want to pay for fiber, I am paying for my neighbor’s fiber.

That’s theft. And there is no scenario where you can say that you have a right to steal from someone else, even if you do it through a government program.

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