Government shouldn’t provide services readily available through private business. Nor should the government compete with private business by providing services the community already has available.

The issue changes, however, when private business doesn’t plan to offer services to a particular geographic area. That part of the equation might be at the heart of Senate Bill 304 — as advocated by the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association — which prohibits municipalities from forming their own public Internet networks or partnering with private businesses to create such networks on public infrastructure.

The bill puts all the decision-making power at the state level for Internet infrastructure, though it likely is underestimating the will of its municipalities to want to be in charge of their respective destinies. Many communities in Western Kansas can’t get high-speed Internet because it is cost-prohibitive for Internet providers to extend their services to those remote locales without a dense-enough population to get an adequate return on its investment to expand services.

Ottawa faced the same challenge with AT&T offering its high-speed U-Verse to select areas of the community. Meanwhile, businesses and residents — particularly those in the Ottawa Industrial Park — couldn’t get the high-speed broadband service they so desperately needed to conduct daily business. That includes American Eagle Outfitters’ nationwide call center in Ottawa. Consequently, after exhausting options to negotiate with private vendors for enhanced broadband services to the industrial park, the City of Ottawa and its partner, Franklin County Development Council, undertook an economic development initiative to install and supply its own broadband service. This is similar to the approach taken by the City of Chanute when it needed help upgrading its own infrastructure.

The proposed legislation would have prohibited such a move by Ottawa. It’s difficult to say those improvements wouldn’t have been made if the city was stymied early in the development. Ottawa’s franchised cable TV and Internet provider, Allegiance Communications, sold its company this time last year to a new broadband provider, Vyve, which claims to offer the same fast broadband service — up to a  “blistering 105 Mbps.”

Still, the bill now under consideration would allow the state to take control of issues that greatly impact local communities and ought to remain within the jurisdiction of local municipalities. Internet service has become too important to our community to have our leaders’ hands tied when they simply are trying solve Ottawa’s infrastructure problems in the manner that best suits the city.

Though it initially appeared this legislation would be passed quickly without giving interested parties an opportunity to weigh in, hearings on the issue now have been postponed to allow more discussion.

State Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, who formerly served portions of Franklin County before redistricting in 2012, said, “It is not the role of the state to decide whether local governments provide high-speed broadband service as an economic development tool. I believe in local control and want city and county leaders, and ultimately the voters who elect them, to make that important decision for each community,”

We agree. Lawmakers should disconnect this bill from successful passage.

— Jeanny Sharp,

editor and publisher