Internet Analogies: Twice as Many Americans Lack Access to Public Water-Supply Systems than Fixed Broadband

After abandoning the “information superhighway” analogy for the Internet, net neutrality advocates began analogizing the Internet to waterworks. I’ve previously discussed the fundamental difference between infrastructure that distributes commodities (e.g., water) and the Internet, which distributes speech protected by the First Amendment – a difference that is alone sufficient to reject any notion that governments should own and control the infrastructure of the Internet. For those who remain unconvinced that the means of disseminating mass communications (e.g., Internet infrastructure) is protected by the First Amendment, however, there is another flaw in the waterworks analogy: If broadband Internet infrastructure had been built to the same extent as public water-supply systems, more than twice as many Americans would lack fixed broadband Internet access.

Advocates who would prefer that the government (whether local, state, or federal) own and operate the Internet often use the lack of broadband access in rural America as a justification. They point to an FCCreport finding that 19 million Americans (6% of the population) lack access to a fixed broadband network and that less than 1% of Americans lack access to a mobile broadband network. Government broadband advocates fail to acknowledge, however, that more than twice as many Americans lack access to public water-supply systems. According to the most recent report from the US Geological Survey,* 43 million Americans (14% of the population) lack access to public water-supply systems and instead must self-supply their own water (e.g., they have to drill a well on their property).

Self-supplied water systems are common in rural areas and neighborhoods that lie outside the jurisdictional boundaries of a municipality. The Virginia Department of Health notes that the “majority of households in 60 of Virginia’s 95 counties rely on private water supply systems” and that in “52 counties, the number of households using private wells is increasing faster than the number of households connecting to public water supply systems.” For example, my neighborhood in northern Virginia, which is served by two fixed broadband providers and several mobile broadband providers, has no access to a public water-supply system. In my neighborhood, every homeowner must drill their own well (at a cost ranging from $3,500 to over $50,000 depending on geological conditions and local regulations).

The jurisdictional limitations of municipal water-supply systems can be overcome by self-supply in most areas of the United States because the value of a water system to a particular household is not directly increased by interconnecting it with another water system. In contrast, the Internet is a network of networks (the term “Internet” was shortened from internetwork) that exhibits both positive and negative direct network effects – i.e., its value for all users is affected by the addition of new users or content to the internetwork. By definition, an individual homeowner cannot self-supply Internet access without interconnecting with at least one other network.

This fundamental difference between waterworks and the Internet is critical to understanding why state legislatures often treat municipal waterworks differently than municipal broadband networks. In addition to the First Amendment issues that are involved when local governments own and control the primary means of mass communications, many states have recognized the potential for municipal broadband networks to result in a form of “cherry picking.” If every municipality built its own broadband network, substantial portions of most states would still lack access to broadband, but the ability of private broadband network operators to profitably serve those areas would likely be reduced. As noted above, public water-supply systems cover significantly less population than private broadband networks.

Of course, advocates who would prefer that the government own and operate the Internet typically don’t mention the jurisdictional limitations of municipalities or the potential impact of municipal broadband networks on citizens who don’t live in a municipality. Some of these advocates actually implythat cronyism must be the primary motivation for state legislation governing municipal broadband networks. Fortunately, state legislators representing citizens who lack access to municipal services have a better understanding of the needs of their citizens than some urban lobbyists and bureaucrats living in Washington.

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*Note that the broadband data in the FCC report is current through mid-2011, and the public water-supply data in the US Geological Survey report is current only through 2005. The US Geological Survey releases its water use reports every five years, but does not intend to release its 2010 water use report until fiscal year 2014. Based on previous trends, however, it is unlikely that the percentage of Americans who have access to public water-supply systems has increased significantly in the last six years, if at all. The percentage of Americans that self-supplied their water dropped only three percentage points in the twenty-year period from 1985 (17%) to 2005 (14%).


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