There’s clearly a lot of interest in the possibility of a new internet provider offering service in Eau Claire. It’s one of the top stories on our website this week, and easily the most-discussed post on our social media channels.
The overwhelming consensus from the reactions we’ve received has been positive. Part of that, we’re sure, is just the normal reaction to having a new option. The grass, as the saying goes, is always greener on the other side of the fence. But other reactions focus on the simple fact that a new provider in Eau Claire would offer something residents don’t currently have: a choice.
Before we get too deep into that, let’s look at what’s actually happening. TDS Telecom is based in Madison. It’s seeking permission to install a $30 million fiber optic network in Eau Claire. If approved, that network would allow for high-speed internet connections, television and phone services locally.
The proposal was scheduled for a vote Tuesday during the city council meeting. There’s a certain irony in the fact the council couldn’t vote on a technology issue because of a tech failure, but a one-week delay doesn’t seem likely to make a huge amount of difference on a grand scale.
Even if it’s approved, Eau Claire residents still have a while to go before they would be able to sign on and get service through TDS. Construction would start this year, but completion will take two to three years. When complete, the proposal envisions TDS owning and operating the network, with no public funding involved in the project.
Back to the question of choice between service providers, though. Bob Nelson, the city’s information technology manager, made the basic point earlier this month. He said the city was excited about the possibility of having “another broadband provider,” and fiber connections for customers. A spokeswoman for TDS made the same basic point, saying entering direct competition with companies that have had effective monopolies over service is one of the company’s goals.
The idea that having options improves services and lowers costs is a bedrock assumption for our economy. The key word there is assumption. Competition often lowers prices for the consumer. It often improves the product since dissatisfied customers can change where they buy a product.
But that’s not always the case. A few years ago people thought cutting the cord on cable or satellite television was a surefire way to save money. It’s still entirely possible to do so, but the proliferation of apps and subscription services means that you can easily wind up paying more if you’re not careful. The only way to really know which way competition will take things is to open up and see what happens.
That said, we don’t see a down side to allowing Eau Claire residents to have an additional option when it comes to their internet services. The simple presence of another option means people feel they have more control over their relationship with businesses. It can also prompt businesses to shift their approaches when they recognize the need to adapt.
It’s worth noting that none of this is exactly new, including when it comes to the internet. A 2018 study from Penn State researchers took a look specifically at the effects of internet monopolies in the context of net neutrality. Other, less formal inquiries date back even further.
Penn State’s report found about 40% of the country had only one option for broadband service. And, unsurprisingly, they also found the relative lack of competition meant Americans frequently paid more for slower broadband service than customers in other developed countries that had more competition.
More concerning was the fact a significant number of the providers researchers studied used their position as monopoly providers to skew service, allowing slower or faster access to websites depending on corporate alignments.
You see, cracking a monopoly isn’t always about the price. It’s not always about better customer service. When it comes to something like the internet, it can quite literally be a question of what ideas and information you have access to.
The entry of another competitor for local internet service is a welcome step for Eau Claire. It’s easy to see why residents are curious about the newcomer. But the benefits to adding another company for internet access, enhancing the incentives for fair play and customer care, may be more than anyone expects.