Column: The pandemic makes clear it’s time to treat the internet as a utility
After months of being stuck at home, many Americans know full well that there are three things they can’t live without. Two of them are power and water.
The third, I’m sure, will be obvious to all.
Imagine this prolonged ordeal without being able to work or attend school from home, without email, without being able to shop online, without streaming video and music.
The few times my home has lost power and/or internet access since the pandemic began (including just this week), it felt like life came to a crashing halt. The harsh reality of isolation became impossible to ignore.
“We’re looking at something that has truly become a necessity for survival,” said Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of the advocacy group Public Citizen. “It’s critical to the functioning of society.”
For that reason, she told me, “treating the internet like electricity or water is the way we need to think about it.”
Which is to say, the internet has grown into a utility, and internet access should be regulated as such.
I heard as much from a number of experts in the field.
“If it wasn’t clear before, it’s now crystal clear that internet access is necessary to survive in our contemporary world, similar to electricity,” said Catherine Powell, a law professor at Fordham University who focuses on digital rights and civil liberties.
Susan Aaronson, director of the Digital Trade and Data Governance Hub at George Washington University, went so far as to say affordable high-speed internet access “is a service that government should provide.”
“It is an essential public good and should be embedded in the law as some nations do,” she said. “It is essential to equality of opportunity, access to credit, access to other public goods, access to education.”
This is a separate matter from debates about regulation of internet content, or whether behemoths such as Google and Facebook have too much power.
The position of the U.S. government — not to mention phone and cable companies — is that the internet is a free-market service, full stop. It’s not a utility.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, says the internet industry merits only what he calls “light-touch” regulation, which is to say hardly any regulation at all.
“The FCC’s light-touch approach is working,” Pai declared last year.
At first glance, that seems to be true. Over the last decade, the percentage of Americans with access to broadband internet climbed to 93.5% from 74.5%, according to a recent report from BroadbandNow, a service comparison site.
Meanwhile, the consumer price index for internet service has remained relatively stable over the same period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The average U.S. internet user pays about $60 a month for service.
But industry observers say we’re measuring things wrong. Rather than comparing current internet prices with how much we paid 10 years ago, we should be comparing our prices to what people in other developed countries pay.
By that yardstick, Americans are getting a lousy deal, not just in terms of pricing but also in terms of service quality — that is, speed.
A recent comparison of worldwide broadband charges by Britain’s Cable.co.uk, a telecom service provider, found that the U.S. ranked 119th out of 206 countries, with monthly costs far surpassing those of Germany, Britain and Japan.
Another study, this one by DecisionData.org, found that although U.S. internet speeds had increased over the last decade, we’re not even in the top 10. (Want fast internet? Move to Romania.)
“Americans have the slowest, most expensive internet in the world,” said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with just a bit of hyperbole.
Telecom companies have been steadily raising internet prices to offset growing numbers of cord cutters ditching their TV plans. The companies are fond of saying that the main reason for these price hikes is investment in new high-speed lines.
But Harold Feld, senior vice president of the advocacy group Public Knowledge, says this is misleading. Most of the necessary fiber-optic cables for current internet use are already in the ground, he said.
“These days, if you want to make your network go faster, you’re talking about software upgrades, not new fiber,” Feld observed of industry moves.
“The only reason for why our broadband prices are relatively stable,” he said, “is because there isn’t much competition.”
Moreover, not everyone shares equally in the benefits of a wired world.
About 44% of households with annual incomes below $30,000 don’t have broadband service, according to a Pew Research Center report last year. Roughly half don’t have a computer.
That average $60 monthly bill for internet access may not seem exorbitant to many people. But it can be an onerous burden for lower-income households when it has to compete with other necessities, such as food and rent.
Alok Gupta, a professor of information and decision sciences at the University of Minnesota, proposed to me giving all Americans “a base rate of access” to the internet for free, and then charging more to people who want faster speeds or more data usage.
In other words, everyone would receive sufficient bandwidth to surf the net and send emails. People who want to spend all day watching Netflix in high definition can pay extra for the privilege.
I find this an attractive idea, not unlike the notion of the government providing everyone with basic health coverage and then allowing private insurers to charge for more comprehensive plans.
But that doesn’t mitigate the need for oversight. The simple fact is that if the internet is a necessity, like power and water, we need clear rules to ensure the greatest possible access and the lowest possible price.
“The internet is the direct descendant of the U.S. telephone network,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a digital rights advocacy group.
Until the phone industry was deregulated in the 1980s and ’90s — a move that boosted competition for a while before the industry reunited into a handful of big players — “it was the first information utility,” he told me.
The internet now plays that role, Chester said.
Aaronson at George Washington University says one reason we lag behind other advanced countries is because we don’t view broadband as a right — just as we don’t view healthcare or higher education as things all people are entitled to.
This, she told me, is incredibly shortsighted.
“Access to broadband is essential for society as a whole to succeed,” Aaronson said.
The very definition of a utility.
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