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Should Broadband Access Should Be a Right?

Submitted by on October 17, 2009 – 5:49 pm4 Comments
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flickr: kjell

Cross-post from Radar:
This week gave us two reasons to reconsider the state of broadband connectivity in the US.

First, Finland has announced that it will guarantee broadband access as a right for all its citizens:

Starting next July, every person in Finland will have the right to a one-megabit broadband connection, says the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Finland is the world’s first country to create laws guaranteeing broadband access.

The government had already decided to make a 100 Mb broadband connection a legal right by the end of 2015. On Wednesday, the Ministry announced the new goal as an intermediary step.

Second, Yochai Benkler and the Berkman Center released a study of broadband Internet transitions and policy.  A global review of how connected various countries are – and the policies that have performed well to stimulate connectivity, both in-home and mobile.  While the U.S. has over 7 billion in stimulus dollars going toward improvements in rural broadband, it is hard to dispute that we have fallen behind:

On those few measures where we have reasonably relevant historical data, it appears that the United States opened the first decade of the 21st centuries in the top quintile in penetration and prices, and has been surpassed by other countries over the course of the decade.

Benkler also makes it clear that government policy has played a role in our decline.  The U.S. began lagging as soon as the FCC abandoned it’s position of “open access” and allowed telecom companies to lock down networks. (see page 12 of the report).

As our economy continues to lose mass in favor of information-based goods (U.S. exports lost 50% of their physical weight per dollar from 1993 to 1999*) and we continue to see the decoupling of workforce from workplace, connectivity is a critical factor in economic exchange and competitive advantage.  Countries that build wide, fast networks to the last mile will have a huge leg up.

If government works best when it creates the conditions that allow citizens the maximum opportunity to succeed, two things seem clear.  First,  broadband access is a key piece of infrastructure and a necessary condition to many jobs and opportunities.  Second, our policies should steer back towards open access to support that right.  Benkler is pretty clear that countries running half a generation ahead of the US (Japan, Korea etc.) are doing so as a result of open access policies.  Achieving these ends does not require the government to own the solution.   As Benkler notes on page 13 “there are models of high performing countries, like France, that invested almost nothing directly, and instead relied almost exclusively on fostering a competitive environment.”   On a personal note, I divide my time between the US and France and I can tell you, my French broadband (in a remote, medieval village mind you) crushes any corporate workplace connection in the US.

What do you think?  Should broadband access be considered a right?   Is “universal connectivity” just too big a job?   And what should government’s policy-making role be in all of this?

4 Comments »

  • Joe N. says:

    While I agree that broadband access is becoming a necessary condition for success, I don't think that the word “rights” should be involved in this discussion. It dilutes the term. I think the policy angle here is also more interesting. We led the world in Internet access to begin with – w/out framing this as a “rights” issue.

  • joshuamross says:

    I am fine w/out using the term “rights” if it causes consternation but I think that proper policy-setting begins with getting very clear about what is at stake. What seem to be is at stake here is whether all citizens get an equal chance at being successful. The first iteration of policy was shepherded through by Clinton/Gore's concept of the “information highway” as critical next stage infrastructure.

  • Joe N. says:

    While I agree that broadband access is becoming a necessary condition for success, I don't think that the word “rights” should be involved in this discussion. It dilutes the term. I think the policy angle here is also more interesting. We led the world in Internet access to begin with – w/out framing this as a “rights” issue.

  • joshuamross says:

    I am fine w/out using the term “rights” if it causes consternation but I think that proper policy-setting begins with getting very clear about what is at stake. What seem to be is at stake here is whether all citizens get an equal chance at being successful. The first iteration of policy was shepherded through by Clinton/Gore's concept of the “information highway” as critical next stage infrastructure.

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