Who Pays the Price for Net Neutrality?

Once upon a time, grassroots advocacy belonged to the "little guy," the underrepresented and oppressed; people with limited financial means but with stores of human capital whose ideology inspired entire nations and whose persistence could move mountains. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez -- these were the revolutionaries of old, people who ascended greatness in the throes of establishing new order for the good of the regular people and the unserved.

It is clear to me that the digital world needs new voices to champion the needs of the digitally disconnected. When I read the blogs and filings of groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge, I wonder who they really represent. Don't get me wrong; I believe their advocacy is sincere, and I too support the open Internet as it exists today. I just can't tell who they are advocating for and who they really care about. And frankly, I'm not sure that they know either.

I'll tell you upfront who I care about. I care about the poor, underserved minorities and the digitally disconnected. And I think it is high time for some truth telling.

To find the truth you need to follow the money. The current net neutrality battle that has ensued in Washington, DC has very little to do with the interests of the poor and unserved consumers. It has even less to do with small content providers and new digital entrepreneurs. It is about the competing corporate business interests of the giants -- Internet service providers versus the big corporate application and content creators.

The giant application creators, like Google, provide us with cool stuff that we all love to use but do not want to pay the costs of maintaining or upgrading the networks that are so vital to their success and to our internet experience. Seriously, I love myself some Google and I'm not mad at the fact that they want a free ride. But the question is, who is going to pay for that free ride?

That brings me to the other corporate interests: the Internet service providers. It is the ISPs who must invest in, upgrade, maintain and build out the networks that allow us to receive these cool applications. While I don't find the network side as sexy as the content side, I do know that we have to have it and ISPs need capital to build and maintain it. So the question remains who is going to pay for maintenance and upgrades to the network if Google gets a free ride? LULAC got it right in their recent Houston Chronicle Op-Ed. Basic economics tells us that if government requires ISPs to give Google a free ride, there's only one other place to look for the money: consumers like you and me. What's more, there are those who want to make it even more unfair by insisting that your big-bandwidth-using neighbor should not have to pay more than you, even if all you want to do is check email and watch some YouTube. Who will all of this hurt the most? Low-income consumers.

This is why I think all this time spent debating net neutrality is a real distraction. All this noise and confusion is causing the FCC to totally lose its focus on what Congress told it to do last year. Congress said "give us a National Broadband Plan guaranteed to yield 100% broadband adoption and use by all Americans - and do it by February 17." The FCC is going to miss its deadline -- because it's preoccupied with refereeing the competing interests of corporations and the nastiness of the Net Neutrality fight.

The FCC is playing a dangerous game here, and the people who have the most to lose are already the socially and economically disenfranchised members of our national community - low-income, rural, urban, non-English speaking, tribal, minority, underserved and underserved populations. Neither the Commission nor the American people can rightly afford to preoccupy themselves with corporate interests over the greater priority interests of people. As responsible citizens, we have an obligation to speak out for and protect the interests of those who are not already digitally connected. I applaud the minority elected officials, the civil rights leaders and the consumer groups who are making their voices heard. I encourage the FCC to listen to the people.