Kvetching about the high cost or sluggish speed of your Internet service used to be the ultimate first-world gripe. So what if YouTube puppy videos kept buffering, or a three-minute pop song took five minutes to download? If the monthly bill seemed stiff, well, the service was optional anyway.
But yesterday’s luxury is today’s ticket to full participation in society. Hence the philosophical debate brewing within the Federal Communications Commission: When should Americans declare high-speed Internet a necessity — and revamp the laws to improve access and bring prices down?
Late last month, Michael O’Rielly, a Republican member of the FCC, raised eyebrows within the technology press by insisting that Internet access isn’t a necessity. “People can and do live without Internet access,” he argued, “and many lead very successful lives.” (Hat tip to the news website Ars Technica, which has covered the debate closely.)
In an ironic turn, O’Rielly, who’s sided with incumbent broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon in the bruising debate over net neutrality, is playing down the day-to-day importance of the product they’re selling.
His argument sat poorly with Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat on the five-member FCC, who countered in a speech last Wednesday that most Fortune 500 companies post job listings only online. “Not a necessity,” she scoffed, “where, in a growing number of states, those who are income-eligible can only apply for benefits or aid online? Not a necessity, when colleges and universities post and accept student admissions electronically?”
Viewing broadband as a necessity would morally obligate the FCC and Congress to demand better service than Americans are getting. Many major US cities, including Boston, are near-captives of the local cable franchisee, and the level of competition is declining as older technologies such as DSL grow obsolete.
Not coincidentally, broadband customers in New York and San Francisco pay twice as much as those in London and Seoul for comparable service. High-end plans by municipal fiber networks in such plucky burgs as Lafayette, La., and Chattanooga, Tenn., boast much faster speeds than what major commercial providers offer on the coasts.
Because the problem crept up on us, it’s harder to fix. Long-standing federal law gave the FCC two crude choices about how to treat broadband Internet companies — as common carriers, like landline phone companies, that provide a vital communications function and are regulated accordingly; or as providers of a discretionary add-on service that requires minimal supervision.
Accepting broadband as a necessity needn’t lead to rate regulation, but it might prompt the FCC to keep closer tabs on price competition in individual markets — as four senators, including Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, requested in a letter last week. Lawmakers might finally break down and force broadband monopolists to open their own networks to competitors — as is common in countries with faster Internet speeds.
When regulators presume that not everyone needs broadband, it’s easier to stand by as poorer Americans patch together access at public libraries and on their cellphones. If searching for a job that way is an inefficient hassle, they’re out of luck.
Even if laws are slow to change, time will settle the question. The clearer it becomes that broadband Internet is a necessity, the greater the urgency of fixing the status quo.