Access to high-speed Internet services – also known as broadband – has become a basic public necessity like water or electricity. Yet despite its importance, broadband in America is far from universal. Broadband Internet Providers have been allowed to remain largely deregulated and to only market service in areas of they’re choosing. We need to decide whether like universal mail service or universal basic telephone service whether to make universal broadband a reality. That being said the decisions we make as a country will determine whether such service will remain a luxury marketed by monopoly cable and phone companies to the few who can afford their exorbitant prices and live in areas where they deploy access to broadband or like any public utility/telecommunications service be made universally available to all.
In order to do so though the FCC has to restore competition mandates on broadband providers by reclassifying broadband under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Competition and investment not a weak Network Neutrality regime are what’s needed but this FCC has been unwilling to do so. That being said in Comcast v. FCC the courts already ruled that the FCC lacks ancillary authority even to enforce Network Neutrality rules. What can be done? Either the President should encourage the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to step in to enforce Network Neutrality rules on broadband providers as that agency has authority over information services or instruct the FCC to reclassify broadband to ensure it has the authority to regulate broadband providers.
Broadband reclassification would the best choice as it enables the FCC to set the competition mandates needed for broadband that have kept the dial-up Internet access market competitive. That being said as the U.S. State Department under the Obama Biden Administration has sought to promote Internet freedom abroad we must have regulatory policies firmly in place to protect and promote it at home. The FCC’s historic decision last October to transform the Universal Service Fund into a Connect America Fund for making universal broadband a reality while lauded by public interest groups also drew concern as well. Media reform and public interest group Free Press which runs SaveTheInternet.com asked its members before the FCC voted on the USF Transformation order to submit comments in the Connect America Fund proceeding (10-90) urging the Commission to reject the telecom industry’s ABC Plan. Free Press wanted to ensure the proposed reforms would not further enrich big telecom giants at our expense.
Indeed Free Press questioned whether the FCC’s USF Transformation order would amount to a rip-off for consumers or result in real reforms that benefit the public. Ultimately the FCC didn’t rubber stamp the ABC Plan written by AT&T and Verizon but it missed an opportunity to bring real pro-consumer reforms to a wasteful system. The question now is as the FCC seeks to implement the National Broadband Plan, and reform other parts of the Universal Service Fund like the Lifeline & Link Up programs how they will enact some of these reforms. Next post I’ll address the need for broadband competition and to advance digital literacy to improve broadband adoption in more detail.