The fly in the ointment
Several weeks ago in this space, I wondered why taxpayers shouldn’t pony up the money needed to build a nationwide wireless broadband communications network for public safety, as taxpayers clearly would benefit from such a network. After all, they certainly benefited a half-century ago when Congress appropriated funding for the construction of the federal interstate highway system.
At IWCE 2007, held in Las Vegas in March, I moderated a panel discussion that addressed the various proposals that have been floated to meet public safety’s current and future communications needs. On the panel was Morgan O’Brien, the chairman of Cyren Call Communications, who a year ago was the first to suggest that a nationwide network could be built without taxpayer support. During the session, O’Brien characterized the notion of taxpayer funding for such a network as “fantasy.”
Afterwards, I spoke with O’Brien, and reminded him of two things. First, that the $20 billion cost of the network he’s proposing, if spread across the nation’s 200 million wireless subscribers over a 10-year period, would cost each subscriber 83 cents per month. That seems like a small price to pay considering the value that would be received — not to mention the fact that many of those subscribers routinely, and without thinking, fork over five bucks every morning for a cup of designer coffee. Second, the mechanism already is in place to impose such a surcharge — the local telephone excise tax, which has been imposed, rescinded and imposed again several times over the past seven decades or so. Last year, Congress rescinded the tax because of variances in how telephone carriers bill for long-distance charges.
I suggested to O’Brien that politicians should muster the same fortitude their predecessors found a half-century ago. He replied that the problem isn’t fortitude — despite the fact politicians today generally act based on what’s best for their re-election campaigns rather than what’s best for their constituents. The real problem, according to O’Brien, is Congress’ tendency to renege on a deal. He wondered about the chaos that surely would ensue should Congress pass legislation authorizing federal funding for the network, then change its mind a year or two later — or simply fail to appropriate the money.
I hate to admit it, but O’Brien probably is right. To get an idea of what he’s talking about, one needs to look no further than the Enhance 911 Act, which authorized up to $1.25 billion over a five-year period for much-needed public-safety answering point upgrades. Nearly three years later, virtually none of the money has been appropriated.
While O’Brien might be right, it’s still wrong. Like every American, I’m not crazy about the notion of additional taxes. But in this case, a next-generation communications network that would keep first responders safer and help them do a better job of protecting Americans and their property, seems to me to be worth 83 cents a month.
Maybe it’s because I don’t drink designer coffee.
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