Here’s the problem: To compete in today’s economy, you have to be wired. And of course, more and more of our library services are digital. But in many communities across the United States, the communication carriers just don’t provide the service citizens seek. Closing the “last mile” is expensive (so the argument goes), despite the fact that many formerly third world countries have established cheap national wireless networks, leapfrogging copper and cable altogether. So here at home, some county and municipal governments have stepped into the gap, and set up the infrastructure themselves.
As Rosanne Cordell (of ALA’s Digital Content and Libraries Working Group and associate dean at Northern Illinois University Library in DeKalb) put it in a February 5 email to DCWG, “It isn’t just poor rural communities that have this problem. I live in the country about 10 minutes from a city of 100,000 and can only get satellite internet service. It’s faster than a modem was, but it isn’t fast enough for streaming video. Money is not the issue; I would gladly pay for it (even though I think the big companies are gouging customers), but it simply isn’t available. I’m sure I have many neighbors who feel the same way. I get the willies when I hear stories about Netflix wanting to do away with its DVD service or Amazon planning to not sell DVDs much longer because that is the only way we can view movies. I think politicos would hear this and think that watching movies is not all that important. However, visual media is an extremely important means of communication in the 21st century.”
So government stepping in to solve citizen problems is a good thing, right? Not according to the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, as it is known, is an extremely well-funded organization advocating for limited government, free markets, and federalism. In practice, that means ALEC doesn’t want government to offer anything someone else might make a profit on. Public schools are one example. The internet as a utility is another. In a recent statement, ALEC joined a long line of telecommunication-company advocates seeking to protect this potentially lucrative market for themselves even if, as Cordell notes, they aren’t actually offering any products.
I’m tempted to view this as yet another example of our modern day conflict between the public and private sectors. We seem to have reached unanimous agreement in our society that there is no higher goal than profitability. But it’s hard to see why we should simply ignore citizens’ needs until some private company is ready to make a killing on it, when government can actually fill the gap right now.