Four million people have weighed in on a communication policy matter the largest number ever to voice an opinion to the Federal Communications Commission.
Most of those people agreed on one thing: The Internet is too important to be left to private companies’ direction without oversight.
Most American households have few choices when it comes to getting home-based broadband service, which also means the content providers trying to reach us have few options as well. In Texas, more than 4 million people are underserved, meaning they have no or only one provider for household broadband service.
The real solution to the problem of bottleneck providers is to have more of them. The speed of the network is also an issue. Many studies agree that the U.S. is falling behind the speeds available in other countries. With the FCC’s new 25 Mbps broadband download standard, fully 38 percent of the Texas population lacks access to broadband services.
The net neutrality provisions don’t really solve either the speed or the competition problems directly, but they are moving in the right direction. Net neutrality will at least affirm the principle that carriers should treat all data similarly and that no particular services, such as the carriers’ own services, will have an advantage.
This idea, called common carrier, dates back to centuries-old provisions for fair service with tolls for crossing bridges or equity in making rooms available to travelers: You cannot charge different rates for the same service just because you don’t like how someone looks, or in the case of, say, phone companies, based on the type of content they convey over the phone.
So too, the reasoning goes, there should not be different rates for what are essentially equivalent “bits” just because your name is Netflix, or because your bits might compete with a service owned and offered by the carrier itself.
When we value something enough to want government protection or involvement in order to ensure reasonable costs, fair services and adequate quality, we are identifying that service as important for society, too important to be left strictly to the priorities of the provider itself.
Because the information and ideas circulated by media must be broadly accessible, and because the institutions behind those services should behave responsibly, sometimes media regulation is required.
These are the goals behind the FCC’s intention to prohibit blocking or throttling speeds or adding surcharges for certain content delivered through the Internet.
They are good ideas because they ensure that old and new services will be treated equitably, and that young innovators with entirely new ideas for services will enjoy access to the network on a fair basis.
And that brings us back to other solutions to ease the bottleneck on Internet service providers and improve our networks in terms of speed and quality.
Whether we use policy to address monopoly issues (as with limited alternatives for Internet access) or market failure (sometimes thought to characterize rural areas where population numbers don’t appear to justify conventional network investment), our government needs to take stock and adjust periodically.
If we believe that cities should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to offer their own telecommunications systems, perhaps it is time to allow them to do so. Texas is one of the 20 states that have forbidden or limited that option.
The FCC is proposing that municipalities be able to make these decisions. Google Fiber’s entrance into the Austin market has illuminated some of the difficulties in how providers need to “play nice” with access to facilities such as poles for hanging wires. There too, we need national policies to take care of such situations.
Net neutrality may not be the optimal solution for improving broadband access. But it joins a handful of other recommendations that promise to cope with the current problems so that Texans can move toward the benefits that high-quality and affordable Internet access seems to promise.
Sharon Strover is the Philip G. Warner Regents Professor in Communication and directs the Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) March 3, 2015