Sikkema Senate Applauded

April 26, 2002
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A fresh breeze came out of Lansing last week when the Senate approved Ken Sikkema's proposal to help broadband across the fabled last mile in Michigan.

It's been almost 30 years since the first articles came out, gushing about the impending third wiring of America and all the Wonders To Come in the Fiber Optic Age.

But the electronic Wave of the Future went aground on the beach of the so-called last mile — the expensive distance between high-speed Internet providers and most households.

To hear the Wall Street Journal tell it, that last mile has been uncrossable in part thanks to thick-headed, pre-internet bureaucratic thinking. This is thinking which Congress made manifest in the Telecom Act with its rigid insistence that phone companies mustn't do cable, cable companies mustn't do broadcast, broadcast mustn't do phones or cable, while Hollywood steers clears of all three, yadda yadda yadda.

Yet the simplest browser on the Web can help you find entities eager to do all these things and then some. All it takes is speed and a big pipe — broadband, so-called.

The thing is, in most communities, that devilish last mile lies in the control of the baby Bell companies and their bureaucratically defined rivals, the cable companies. And therein, especially in the Bells, lies kind of a dirty little tale.

Many of these firms are populated in large measure of managers who grew up in the industry when it was a giant, protected monopoly; almost an arm of government, really. Ma Bell and the baby Bells after them really never had to upset the serene and even tenor of their cost-plus lives with concerns about profit. It always was far simpler to just figure out how to flim-flam the public service boys for the next rate increase

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Thus it should come as no surprise that many executives who matured in that no-sweat kind of world exhibit no great eagerness for risk. Why get worked up about supplying what the public really isn't too clear about? Instead, it's easier to just keep playing flim-flam games: telemarketing which blatantly lies about long-distance charges; playing the delay game with customers who dare to try a different carrier; padding phone bills with phony fees.

Well, the FCC is changing very gradually and the federal Telecom Act with all its obstructions remains very much in force, thus broadband's last mile still is a stretch.

But Sikkema's legislation explicitly prohibits the Bells from their age-old practice of financing by phone bill tolls. It also standardizes the permitting, approval and fee process. It likewise offers incentives: tax credits in circumstances when installation costs are high, and a 40 percent break in fees for firms that share their lines with competitors.

Granted, the measure creates a new state agency that will act as a financing conduit. But it will have no fund of its own. Only two of its board will be salaried. And one key member of the agency board will be the CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, meaning that the broadband agency, for at least a time, will be viewed as a facilitator for economic development, which broadband itself also is.

And there's something even better.

The legislation causes the broadband agency to die at midnight, Dec. 21, 2002.

We'd say that is an unenduring monument to an energetic legislative leader who crafted an excellent bill in record time.

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