Broadband called a ‘civil right’

July 22, 2008
Tribune Review

Besides life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the government should guarantee everyone a high-speed Internet connection, according to a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

“No matter who you are, or where you live, or how much money you make … you will need, and you are entitled to have these tools (broadband Internet) available to you, I think, as a civil right,” said commissioner Michael Copps during a Monday appearance at Carnegie Mellon University.

With online video, music and other large files increasingly testing the limits of broadband networks, the commission’s five members appeared before a nearly full McConomy Auditorium yesterday afternoon for a public hearing on broadband expansion and regulations.

Broadband connections — such as fiber optic lines, cable networks and digital subscriber line, or DSL — allow much faster data transmissions than modems and standard telephone wires. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, organized the hearing.

According to the Census, only 35 percent of homes with annual incomes below $50,000 have a broadband connection, compared to three-quarters of wealthier households.

The United States ranks 15th among developed nations in broadband use per capita, down from third place in 2001, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Several commissioners said the auctioning of the broadcast spectrum that will become available with the end of analog TV signals next year could provide a key to faster Internet access.

Mark Cavicchia, founder of WhereverTV, a local startup aimed at putting Internet-streamed foreign TV channels on a TV without a computer, complained that cable modem providers are stifling competition by testing out limits on how much their customers can download.

Comcast and Time Warner have rolled out tiered pricing systems in some test markets, with extra charges for downloads over a certain limit.

Phone, cable and other companies providing high-speed service spent $15 billion on broadband infrastructure last year, said commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate. They should be able to filter out pornography and pirated music and video, she said.

Pittsburgh native Mark Cuban spoke during the discussion — not about his Dallas Mavericks basketball team or his occasionally rumored interest in purchasing a local pro team, but in his role as the founder and chairman of the HDTV channel HDNet.

“The future of any technology can be defined by the economic opportunities it creates,” Cuban said.

He said if the FCC can carve out rules for special high-speed digital networks apart from the Internet that will enable more innovation in areas such as 3-D TV broadcasts.