Thursday, August 14, 2008

Questioning "natural monopolies"

In a previous post, I had suggested that the government invest in infrastructure such as additional phone lines/fiber optic/broadband connections. I think that this should also be extended to power lines, sewage, etc. The argument was that the government could then auction off these assets when they are complete and then use the proceeds to fund additional infrastructure investment or maintenance. The traditional argument against this has been that utilities are "natural monopolies" - i.e. it doesn't make sense to have two sets of power lines or telephone lines going into the same house.

I would argue that because of this natural monopoly argument,
1. There has not been enough competition in services because Verizon owns its lines, Pepco owns its lines, etc.
2. Not only that, when there is service, it sucks - note the loud complaints against cable TV companies and phone companies. Granted it's not as bad as when phone and electrical companies were actually owned by the government but I think we can do better.
3. There has literally been NO innovation in delivering power or telco services to homes - are lines really the best that we can do? Innovation is required to drive down costs of establishing connections be they innovations in drilling/boring to put in underground cables or assembly/replacement of poles for phone and power lines.
4. This lack of innovation, I believe, partially explains why we constantly struggle with getting power back on after a storm - the lack of innovation results in the lack of planning, thinking and drive to work efficiently or just plain replacement of current technology with better less vulnerable technologies which aren't available because of the lack of competition.
5. Granted, government investment itself is no panacea, but by building additional infrastructure it can, a) build in some redundancy in the system, b) jump-start some innovation be it R&D at the federal government level or by using lowest bidders to build the infrastructure.
6. If telcos can invest in multiple cell towers, e.g. Verizon/ATT can have their own towers in the Washington metro area - whose costs are non-negligible and is not subject to a natural monopoly argument then why should other telco or power services be subject to the same argument?

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