Illinois rings some GONs and goes deeper in debt

It is amazing that while Illinois is approaching financial disintegration, politicians are devising ever-new ways to borrow and spend.

Thus: GONs.

GONs (government-owned networks) furnish high-speed Internet connections to schools, offices, research labs, coffee shops, hotels, libraries, homes and so forth in competition with existing, private sector providers like AT&T and Comcast. GONs depend on taxpayer money to "leverage" their creation in partnership with nongovernmental funders.

In effect, you could be surfing the Internet, playing video games, working out of the office, sexting or whatever on your smartphone, laptop or other electronic devices at government (read: taxpayers') expense.

Such "connectivity" has become such a powerful goal that it didn't take long for some people to consider it a right and entitlement. Laments are increasingly heard about the "digital divide" between the haves and have-nots. Government must step in!

So, state and local governments across the country are partnering with civic groups, community organizations, businesses and others to set up GONs. Last month in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn announced the award of $1 million in state bond money to Evanston and Northwestern University for a "fiber optic gigabit" GON. It would link 400 "access points" on the university's two campuses and "in surrounding Evanston" to promote high-tech development and job growth.

It was the third such grant. Last year, Quinn awarded $1 million to an Aurora consortium and $2 million to a University of Chicago and a mid-South Side consortium. More grants could be on the way as part of Quinn's Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge project, designed to make Illinois more technologically competitive. More than 40 governmental, institutional, civic and business coalitions have applied for the grants.

Nationally, President Barack Obama has pushed a plan to expand high-speed wireless to 98 percent of the country. We might hear more about it during his State of the Union message Tuesday. The Federal Communications Commission could require broadcasters and TV networks to sell part of their unused airwaves to the government for public Wi-Fi access.

Many of the advocates of building GONs are seeking more than economic development and are urging that they be expanded to close the digital divide. For example, Karen Mossberger, a University of Illinois at Chicago expert on high-speed networks, has urged the FCC to make the networks more available to low-income residents to grant them "digital citizenship" to achieve "full participation in society."

Hey, it's the information age, and possession of information is the pathway to success and power. But why is government required in this time of budget crises to provide the leverage?

Not unexpectedly, private sector Internet providers are the strongest critics of GONs. Why should government, they ask, set up duplicative service, at a cost to taxpayers, when private sector providers can deliver the same or better service?

The critics note that some GONs have failed to yield the wide coverage they promised or their costs have exceeded the benefits. They point to a number of GON failures in some cities such as Akron, Ohio. There, taxpayers reportedly have been waiting years to see its network live up to all the promises of widespread connectivity on their $6 million investment.

GON supporters argue that the private sector has failed to help poor communities, while critics respond that the threat or reality of unfair government competition has discouraged private investment in those areas.

Taxpayers' expenditures on GONs are a sliver of public debt, so why worry about it?

Because it betrays a mindset that demands that Illinois, other financially crippled states and the federal government must continue to dream up new ways of spending and borrowing as if their finances were okey-dokey. And because it's a facet of a coming war between government and private digital providers. Who wins could presage the course of the deep political and philosophical debate over large versus small government.

It is extremely irresponsible that Springfield is handing out millions for any experimental, risky or non-urgent new program while it fails to pay billions of dollars owed to health care, social service and other suppliers, and public employee pension funds unravel.

If you liked this please follow me on twitter @dennispbyrne or join my Facebook group. Thanks.

This column originally appeared as a Chicago Tribune op-ed.

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