Making broadband a right – a lesson for the states?

Just over 50 cities in the US have their own fiber networks and fewer than 100 have cable networks. Communities it seems, can’t compete with the private sector to provide broadband access to citizens in the United States.

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Editor’s note: This piece originally ran on CivSource on July 6, 2011

Broadband access in the United States is an issue fraught with strong opinions on topics from speed to funding to net neutrality. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) backed by the support of the Obama Administration is pushing a variety of initiatives to increase broadband access nationwide in order to close the technology infrastructure gap between the US and much of the developed world. Yet, these initiatives have faced push-back from state legislatures and incumbent private sector providers, leading some supporters of broadband to push the idea that broadband is more or less a public utility.

They argue that as the economy becomes increasingly reliant on high speed access in order to do business effectively, broadband access should be available just as one would be able to turn on water or electricity. Indeed, some countries are taking this a step further and making access to broadband a right. Recently, the United Nations also signed on to this idea and recognized broadband access as a human right.

These moves pose an interesting question for the United States as a beacon of personal freedom and liberty. Should broadband access be recognized here as a right? CivSource spoke with Suvi Linden, former Minister of Communications for Finland, which recognizes broadband access as a right about what the designation meant for her country and what it might mean for others. Through Minister Linden’s work, Finland blazed the trail for such a designation.

“The problem for access in Finland was that people needed the ability to get reasonably priced, high-speed access uniformly throughout the country and that wasn’t going to happen without legislation,” says Linden.

Minister Linden noted that over 80% of Finland’s population uses online services for their every day lives. These services range from conveniences like online banking to work related activities to interacting with the government. According to Linden, with online services that deeply integrated into the continuity of an individual’s daily life, access becomes not only necessary but required.

As such, she proposed legislation designed to ensure that broadband access and infrastructure keep up with the needs of individuals and the economy. Under the terms of the law, Finland’s citizens have the legal right to have access to a 1Mb broadband connection. And, they didn’t stop there – the government is working to provide 100Mb broadband connections to citizens by the end of 2015.

When asked about the reaction of the private sector to the legislation, Linden noted that there were concerns, but that they were able to work through them. “We said to the providers, we have given you ways to make money by allocating frequencies for mobile networks. We will work with you on the infrastructure and licensing but the access must be available everywhere – even areas that are less profitable.”

According to Linden, “there is no other reality than having quality telecommunications infrastructure all over. It is a requirement for people and the economy in the 21st century. Access must be completed sooner rather than later. If providers aren’t going to build the infrastructure on their own, legislation must become part of the picture in order to save time and ensure competitiveness and sustainability of the economy. In fact, one megabit access is really only a baseline – we have to keep moving forward.”

Minister Linden is focused on the need for technological innovation both from the public and private sector as a means of keeping pace with the costs and demands of competing in a global economy. She notes that providing e-services is pivitol to reaching citizens in a timely and cost effective manner.

E-services are also important to ensuring that the citizenry is more technically savvy. The Minister is quick to point out, however, that providing these services is only half of the equation- the access issue must be solved. For Finland, making broadband a basic human right is a key step. In June, the United Nations signed on to this idea with a declaration from the Special Rapporteur. To wit:

“The Special Rapporteur believes that the Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies. Indeed, the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights. As such, facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States.”

Yet, in the face of all of this forward movement, the United States seems to have stalled out. Just over 50 cities in the US have their own fiber networks and fewer than 100 have cable networks. These numbers are set against the backdrop of soaring broadband access costs from private sector providers both for individuals and for governments. This reality is especially painful during a slow economy and historically bad government budget cycles.

One of the most glaring examples of the broadband problem in the US can be found in North Carolina. A bill recently passed by the state legislature effectively stops municipalities from providing broadband infrastructure to its citizens. The law, largely written and supported by incumbent providers claims that municipal governments have an ‘unfair advantage,’ over the private sector when it comes to investing in and providing access to broadband.

The bill passed without an official signature from Governor Bev Perdue, who seemed to be at a loss about how to handle the uprising from incumbent providers over a few self-sustaining municipal networks in the state.

In a decidedly non-committal statement the Governor said, “there is a need to establish rules to prevent cities and towns from having an unfair advantage over providers in the private sector. I call on the General Assembly to revisit this issue and adopt rules that not only promote fairness but also allow for the greatest number of high quality and affordable broadband options for consumers.” According to data provided in the National Broadband Map, North Carolina ranks 27th overall for broadband coverage.

A similar battle recently took place in Wisconsin, which ranks even lower – 43rd. Private cable companies took the same position as they had in North Carolina, arguing that WiscNet the state’s public broadband network, posed an unfair advantage in providing access to public schools, libraries and other public offices across Wisconsin. In an late night budget fight, lawmakers allowed WiscNet to stay online for just two more years.

Lawmakers also allowed the service to keep $32 million in National Telecommunications Information Agency (NTIA) broadband stimulus grants which the state’s Joint Committee on Finance tried to return to the federal government. The funding is intended to improve the network and increase access to rural areas in Wisconsin.

Today, almost half of the states in the US place significant hurdles in front of municipalities looking for ways to increase broadband access by providing for themselves. Indeed, even when the federal government provides grants for these initiatives in order to ease local budgetary concerns or speed deployment timelines this money has been attacked by lawmakers that claim, paradoxically, that competition is anti-capitalist.

Communities it seems, can’t compete with the private sector to provide services to citizens in the United States.

Minister Linden notes that, for Finland, broadband access is critical in order to foster and grow economic activity. “Good telecommunications infrastructure is key for everything going forward. Everyone wins – public sector, private sector. Access is key for business activity and innovation in the 21st century.”

Minister Linden’s comments and initiatives place the broadband problem in the US into stark relief. With a jobless recovery in full swing, and incumbent providers working to keep competition out of the marketplace, it is no surprise that the US is falling behind other countries. Perhaps it is time for cities and states to take a page from Minister Linden when finding ways to ensure broadband access for their citizens.

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Tags: infrastructuregovernancebarack obamainternet access

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