When the lights went out in 219,000 Maine homes and businesses last week, internet service went down, too.

But while electric customers had some idea when to expect their power to come back, internet customers were left in the dark.

That’s because companies like Central Maine Power and Emera Maine are publicly regulated utilities that are required by law to keep their customers informed during an outage. But internet service providers like Spectrum and Consolidated Communications, are not regulated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Even though they have de facto monopolies in most areas of the state, they don’t have to answer to the public.

Back when the biggest internet service providers were primarily cable television companies, the unregulated status was easier to justify. Back in the 1990s, when all there was at stake was timely viewing of the latest episodes of “The Sopranos” or “Sex and the City,” it was reasonable to let the free market run its course. If people didn’t like the service they got from the cable company, they could always go to a Blockbuster store for their entertainment. A consumer doesn’t have the same ability to go without heat, electricity or telephone services, and that’s why they are regulated by the state.

But with the importance of high-speed internet in American commerce, it’s not just an evening’s entertainment that’s affected by a lengthy service interruption. The internet has made it possible for people to work from home. It has made it possible for small Maine companies to compete in a national marketplace. It provides a link for medical offices to monitor the health of patients with chronic illnesses.

Getting real-time information about which areas are out of service and when that service can reasonably be expected to be restored is very important. The companies have that information, but they don’t want to tell us. A company executive told the Press Herald that identifying the out-of-service areas would also identify where their customers are, giving an edge to potential competitors.

According to a report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, big cable companies have chosen not to compete with each other. Most customers don’t have a choice if they need internet access in their lives.

It makes no sense to treat these companies as free-market actors when they have all the anti-competitive clout of a regulated monopoly. For consumers, it’s the worst of both worlds.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The state can choose to regulate the providers. Municipalities could become internet service providers, improving access and service as well as lowering prices for consumers.

As internet service becomes crucial to the way Mainers live and work, Maine should consider other ways to make sure someone is putting the consumers’ interests first.

 

 

 

 


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