The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman's announcement last week seemed to signal common ground on the issue of net neutrality, providing an opportunity to shift focus to implementing the National Broadband Plan to deliver affordable access to all Americans. This is good news for low-income Americans who, according to the Pew Research Center and the FCC, continue to cite cost as a leading issue that stands in the way of adoption. However, it appears we face another hurdle in our efforts to move forward -- specifically, efforts by Level 3 to get everyday families to subsidize their business under the guise of a net neutrality violation. However, there is no net neutrality issue here, just a peering dispute with Comcast with high stakes for low-income and minority Americans as the anti-consumer (and hypocritical) pricing model proposed by Level 3 threatens to deepen the digital divide that we already face.
Here's a brief rundown of the issue: Recently, Level 3 won some of NetFlix's streaming business. This, along with any number of other factors, led to Level 3 providing Comcast with notice that the volume of its traffic being sent through Comcast would significantly increase in the coming months to a level that, consequently, would exceed the existing terms of their peering agreement (in fact, it would more than double). In order to continue to deliver content to customers, this increased traffic flow will require Comcast to build out more bandwidth, which comes with a price tag. So essentially the question is who is going to foot the bill?
The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies recently reported that 59 percent of Hispanics and 69 percent of African-Americans have taken advantage of digital opportunities and adopted broadband as opposed to 79 percent of whites. These numbers point to a digital divide that continues to be a very real problem in spite of our growing, digital global economy -- leaving millions of Americans and a disproportionate number of minority Americans struggling to compete with their digitally-connected counterparts. As our society increasingly goes digital for essential and ancillary services, it is vitally important that broadband is not pushed beyond the reach of these Americans as a result of unaffordable broadband pricing.
Additionally, tens of millions of Americans have yet to adopt broadband technology despite its increasing role in the workplace, in the classroom, in the home and beyond. Reports continue to show that income is a determining factor in who is online, confirming that money matters and that we must continue to consider broadband pricing if we are going to achieve the president's goal of full digital connectivity. Allowing Level 3 to pass this cost on to the everyday family would not be in the best interest of Main Street Americans, particularly those who have just begun to experience the broadband way-of-life.
Level 3 would prefer that all of Comcast's broadband customers share the cost -- a move that would ultimately result in higher broadband prices for all, whether they subscribe to Netflix, another high-bandwidth content service or not, and a move that runs the risk of exacerbating the digital divide -- that does in fact still exist. Simply passing these costs down to consumers fails to look at the big picture and would be a mistake. A paid agreement between Level 3 and Comcast is much more appropriate such as is the case with power purchase agreements that are regularly used in the electricity industry. Level 3 seemed to share this point of view in 2005 when on the other side of a strangely similar debate with Cogent. But it seems that now Level 3 would like us to look the other way on them paying their fair share. Well, I am sorry... but there is far too much at stake here to let this one slide.
At the end of the day, this is not a net neutrality issue as Comcast doesn't care what type of traffic Level 3 is managing. Comcast just doesn't want to "subsidize" Level 3's business the same way that Level 3 did not want to "subsidize" Cogent's 5 years ago -- and the very same way that the everyday broadband subscriber does not want to "subsidize" Level 3's business. That seems fair, right? Let's not make this into something that it isn't.
With a net neutrality compromise on the table, we have the opportunity to shift focus to implementing the National Broadband Plan to deliver affordable broadband that is accessible to all Americans -- a critical component to getting this country back on track. But the key here is affordability and we must ensure that broadband technology remain affordable and accessible to all. This requires sound policies all around and yes -- it also means making sure those like Level 3 who use more bandwidth pay their fair share.
Julius H. Hollis is the CEO of the Alliance for Digital Equality, a non-profit organization that receives funding from a wide array of organizations including those from the telecommunications, energy and entertainment sectors.
Follow Julius H. Hollis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/digitalequality