Government and the Internet: A Bad Connection

Rich Tucker
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Posted: Dec 26, 2008 12:01 AM
Government and the Internet: A Bad Connection

Where, oh where, have you gone, John Kennedy?

Once upon a time, and within living memory, a new president urged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” These days, with that president’s daughter apparently bound for a seat in the U.S. Senate, the question is reversed. In many ways, people want to know only what their government can do for them.

Consider broadband connections.

“Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online,” President-elect Barack Obama announced recently. “That’s how we’ll strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world.” Perhaps. But if high-speed Internet connections were that important, it stands to reason that people would be willing to pay for them. Instead, there’s a press to have the federal government do that for us.

As The Washington Post reported on Dec. 17, that’s likely to set off a lobbying race for federal largesse. The Telecommunications Industry Association wants massive tax breaks and $25 billion in grants to companies that build networks in hard-to-reach areas.

The Communications Workers of America also wants tax breaks, but a different sort, ones that “would allow network operators to expense, through tax deductions, a larger portion of their broadband deployment costs right away,” the paper reports. And so forth.

In short, Obama’s call for more broadband hasn’t spurred companies to go out and build. It’s spurred lobbyists to go out and demand the government give them money to go out and build.

Oh, and by the way, attempts to deliver wireless broadband to particular areas have failed in many cities, including Arlington, Virginia and Philadelphia. But that’s no reason not to launch a similar project on a national basis, is it?

While we’re on the subject of federal infrastructure projects, it’s worth noting that telecom executives aren’t the only ones drooling over the prospect. So are mayors.

On Dec. 8, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a list of more than 11,000 projects it wants to build. “Talk about a dream scenario,” wrote Joshua Zumbrun at Forbes.com. “Build all those projects, do it with federal money, say you’re rescuing the economy with the spending and, since it’s not your local taxpayers’ money, don’t even stress too much about whether or not the project’s cost effective.”

Miami’s the city hoping to get the most from the federal gravy train. Mayor Manny Diaz has identified more than 450 projects with a total price tag of $3.4 billion that he’d be happy to see the federal government build. He estimates the projects would “generate” some 55,000 jobs -- which is about $60,000 per job. Nice work, if you can get it.

And really, why shouldn’t the federal government build a road and lay fiber optic cable to your front door? After all, Washington is already willing to pony up to allow you to watch television.

Any American household can apply to the “TV converter box coupon program,” and Uncle Sam will send it a credit-card sized coupon good for $40 off the purchase price of a digital converter box. These boxes sell for about $60, so Washington is willing to pay two-thirds of the cost of upgrading your old, over-the-air analog set to digital. (All analog signals are set to go off the air in February.) Hurry, though. There’s a limit of two cards per household.

During the Kennedy administration, when most people watched their president on flickering black-and-white televisions, it would have seemed silly to say that the government would help Americans buy new TVs.

At the dawn of the Obama administration, what’s amazing -- and worrying -- is that we’ve come so far, in the wrong direction.