Internet Co-Ops, Why Not?

Wayne’s post got me thinking. Yes, of course, its absurd for Sen. Byron Dorgan to say that consumers somehow own fiber “pipes” that clearly belong to corporate stockholders. But, then again, I do wonder if private, voluntary co-ops might well be a good way to accelerate the roll out of some types of technology. Insurance companies, credit unions, business franchisers, electric utilities, and even food stores all sometimes operate as co-ops and mutuals. (Both are member-owned but co-ops typically require an upfront equity investment while mutuals “give” a measure of ownership to anyone who does business with them. Both hand out a portion of their corporate profits to members.)

The economics of rolling out any type of network are difficult: you have to sustain years and years of losses. The old AT&T, in fact, had to sell itself off because it could not figure out a way to roll out cable-based Internet services in an efficient way and plenty of companies (Iridium, Global Crossing) have gone belly up after dropping billions on infrastructure. Particularly for services that are highly scalable–wi-fi is one–it strikes me that business-like non-profits could have a very important potential role to play.