Sunday Forum: Save the Internet

July 20, 2008
Post Gazette

The Internet is transforming our lives. It has revolutionized commerce, entertainment, politics and how we interact with each other and the rest of the world. A “broadband” connection is no longer a luxury — it’s a public necessity.

Internet access may not be as important as water. But it’s now right up there with hot water.

Yet given how important broadband is to the future of our economy, our educational system, even our democracy, there is amazingly little public discussion about it.

For too long, that conversation has been happening behind closed doors among self-appointed experts, deep-pocketed lobbyists and politicians who either believe the Internet is “a series of tubes” or don’t use it at all.

A notable exception is U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who’s helping to bring the entire Federal Communications Commission to a public hearing tomorrow at Carnegie Mellon University.

It’s rare for all five members of the FCC — the federal agency that regulates the Internet and U.S. media — to appear together outside of Washington. But the reason for their visit couldn’t be more important: They want to hear from you about what the future of the Internet should look like.

The FCC’s trip to Pittsburgh comes at a critical juncture. At the moment when Internet access is becoming essential, too many Americans are still unable to access or afford a broadband connection. This “digital divide” takes several dimensions.

First, there’s an economic divide by which the middle class and those less fortunate are being left out. Only 35 percent of homes with less than $50,000 in annual income have broadband, according to the Census Bureau, while 76 percent of households earning more than $50,000 per year are connected.

There’s also a geographic divide. Nearly 20 million Americans live in areas that are not served by a single broadband provider, while tens of millions more live in places with just a single source for high-speed Internet. Just 39 percent of rural households subscribe to broadband service, compared to 54 percent of urban dwellers.

Finally, the benefits of broadband aren’t being shared equally across all racial and ethnic groups. Only 40 percent of minority households subscribe to broadband, while 55 percent of non-Hispanic white households are connected. This disparity is unchanged from the dial-up era.

As the birthplace of the Internet, America has long been home to the companies that are making the greatest innovations utilizing broadband technology. But now that standing is in jeopardy.

The United States is falling behind other global leaders in per capita broadband use — dropping from fourth in the world in 2001 to 15th today, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Moving to the top of these ranks would mean millions of new jobs and hundreds of billions of dollars in increased economic activity.

Americans are paying far more money for much slower connections than people living in Europe and Asia. The average broadband offering in Japan is 10 times faster than the average service available to U.S. consumers — at half of the price.

While U.S. consumers face high prices and few choices — thanks to the big phone and cable companies that dominate 99 percent of the broadband market — places like South Korea and France enjoy robust competition. They also have something else we’re missing: a coherent national broadband policy.

For too long, policy makers in Washington have been making decisions in the public’s name but without our involvement. While insiders and industry lobbyists write the laws, the public has been cut out. The results are unmistakable: high prices and slow speeds, healthy profits but no competition, more gatekeepers and fewer innovators.

To get back on track, our leaders need to hear from small businesses and start-ups, bloggers and filmmakers, educators and churchgoers — in short, everyone who has a stake in where the Internet is headed next. There is no single answer to closing the digital divide or reversing America’s technological decline. But there are better ones.

Remember that the Internet didn’t appear magically; it’s the result of specific policies and political decisions. There are going to be rules. The important question is who those rules will benefit. Will it just be a few big phone and cable companies — or all of us?

The phone and cable companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Washington on lobbyists and lawyers to advance their vision. They’ve prevented cities and towns from building municipal broadband systems. They’ve successfully lobbied to eliminate laws that allow competitors to access “their pipes” — even though such requirements brought us lower prices and more choices in the days of dial-up and long-distance phone service.

The phone and cable companies want to exploit their dominance of the broadband market to undercut competition in online video and Internet phone service. They’ve already been caught blocking legal file-sharing and censoring text messages. They’re trying to erase the fundamental principle of “network neutrality” so they can decide for you which Web sites go fast or slow — and which won’t load at all.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The rest of us may not agree on every policy priority. But we can come together around common goals like providing universal access, ensuring a choice of providers, protecting free speech and establishing a free market for all Internet users, both the big companies and the little guys.

What’s most important is standing up and making our voices heard. The decisions that will shape the Internet for a generation are being made right now. And if you don’t get involved, they’ll be made without you.