Posts Tagged ‘ Internet access ’

Will the Internet remain an “all you can download” buffet?

Last week I wrote about the incoming FCC plan for universal broadband access across the U.S., an expensive and somewhat controversial initiative that begs the question of whether high speed Internet access is not just a privilege but a right.

The plan has been hit by fierce pushback from major cable companies since it was announced Tuesday. No surprise there. A major provision of the FCC’s plan is to auction off spectrum once used for broadcast in order to expand wireless networks to rural areas not serviced by the private sector. The broadcasters who now own that spectrum aren’t about to just give it up for nothing.

Ironically enough, I found myself out to dinner with a group of Elon faculty and communications professionals that included a Time Warner Cable regional executive on the day the FCC’s plan was announced.  Naturally, he didn’t see the FCC’s current plan as the answer to the issue of broadband access. Nor was he crazy about Google’s initiative to poke its head into the ISP business by laying out “dark fiber” cables that can offer much faster access in urban areas.

But he didn’t dismiss the issue either, instead proposing that the problem with high-speed Internet isn’t one of access, but of demand. ISPs can extend broadband to rural areas but aren’t likely to get everyone to sign up, either because they can’t afford it or don’t see the value in the service. Even some in favor of universal access acknowledge, as Slate tech wrtier Farhad Manjoo does at the end of this piece, that only about two-thirds of those with access to broadband actually sign up. If the government can find a way to subsidize the cost through some form of tax credits, it would be easier for private ISPs to bring broadband to more of the country.

This concept is similar in spirit to one proposed in Jonathan Zittrain’s “The Future of the Internet: and how to stop it,” a book I’m now reading for class that offers a thorough look at how online access has been shaped through the decades. Zittrain is highly critical of non-generative models that limit what a consumer can gather online (think AOL 15 years ago or perhaps the iPad today). But he does point out that ISPs who wall off parts of the Internet could subsidize the cost of access by charging websites or search engines for a spot in their “walled gardens” of content accessible to customers. The revenue stream would allow the ISP to offer access at reduced rates, or maybe even for free.

Proponents of net neutrality probably cringe at this thought. The Internet should be open and free for all, they argue, without restrictions on content. That’s laudable in spirit, but the reality is that someone has to pay for the high speed access. If the government can’t afford to pay for the infrastructure, and it’s not profitable for the private sector, than the only solution is charging websites themselves for distribution. As long as consumers know they’re only getting a la carte portions of the Internet, they might be OK not having the all you can eat model. It’s better than having no access at all, which is the status quo for far too many in this country right now.

High-speed Internet: a right or a privilege?

Americans have long accepted K-12 education as a right for all. Debate now rages on whether basic health care also qualifies in that category.

But what about high-speed Internet?

That’s the question that will leap to the forefront with the F.C.C. poised to announce this week an ambitious plan to spread broadband access to the entire country. This proposal has been eagerly anticipated for several months, and it came up frequently during my research last semester on the Digital Divide as sign of hope on bridging the technology gap in this country.

It’s not as simple as a government patch, however. The involvement of the public sector in the business of Internet service providers not only costs taxpayers billions, but it tiptoes into the realm of free-market meddling that arouses intense criticism for hampering business growth. Already major cable companies are lining up in opposition for the F.C.C.’s plans to auction off areas of the broadcast spectrum to allow more space for wireless networks.

Yet if governments don’t take some action, rural Americans will almost certainly keep lagging behind in connection speeds. It simply doesn’t make good business sense to invest in Internet infrastructure servicing areas with a low density of potential consumers. That’s why the F.C.C. wants to offer subsidies to companies that offer high-speed access to rural America. It’s the same principle that has caused nations like South Korea and Finland to roll out expensive initiatives to wire their entire countries so high-speed Internet access is a universal right.

Some more competition among the private sector could also help. Most ISPs have a near monopoly on their markets, leaving them little incentive to improve the speed and breadth of their networks. That’s a big reason why Google is entering the industry through buying up “dark fiber” cables capable of delivering Internet 50 times faster that what most customers are used to receiving. Some have speculated this is a bid not so much to break into the ISP industry but instead to force cable companies to improve their connections speeds, since a faster Internet directly benefits Google’s core products.

Yet even if Internet connections get blindingly fast in the city, they’ll still lag way behind in the country without some government intervention. That changes the way students in rural areas learn, what services rural businesses can offer and what kind of digital content rural residents are capable of receiving. A PR or advertising firm might have to deliver one set of heavy multimedia content (videos, interactive microsites) for one audience while similtaniously running a different campaign for rural areas that doesn’t involve files that won’t download fast enough on the rural connections.

There’s no question that life on the slow end of the Internet is drastically different, and the divide will only grow more pronounced as more and more of society’s business and social functions migrate online. But are the consequences of no high-speed access severe enough to merit major intervention by the public sector? Is it a right we must establish for all no matter where they live? The answers to those questions will ultimately determine whether the digital divide narrows in this country or turns into a chasm.