As we arrive at the end of the long health care reform battle with something less than nirvana, media activists have been waiting with bated breath for the release of the long-awaited National Broadband Plan from the Federal Communications Commission.
Well over a year in the making, the plan sets a course for the future of the online communications system -- a system that materially affects every American's ability to access information and express themselves.
It's not exactly the public option.
Congress ordered up this plan for very specific reasons. The United States, with the world's biggest economy, ranks about 14th in the speed and breadth of connectivity it offers -- on average -- to its residents. About a third of Americans don't have high speed broadband in their homes, a situation commonly referred to as the "digital divide". Many of the people on the wrong side of the divide echo the demographic markers for the lowest incomes and highest unemployment rates.
Given the deaths of daily newspapers around much of the country, it's a real question how to get needed daily news and information without an Internet connection.
So here we are with a plan. What does the plan say?
The good news is that the broadband plan acknowledges an important thing. It admits that high speed broadband is a critical public service. The plan observes that the Rural Electrification Act brought electricity to farms; land grants underwrote the building of the railroad, and the government paid for 90% of the highways -- to mention a few critical public service infrastructures. And it states that the US must do better in expanding the digital infrastructure -- and soon.
But there are a few big omissions.
It should be mentioned the goals laid out in the report for speed and penetration, while a big improvement over the status quo, aim for competitiveness with planned services in countries like Finland, Japan, South Korea and Sweden 5-10 years later. It's a strained definition of competitiveness to reach by 2020 what the UK hopes to achieve by 2013.
No one debates that speed needs to be increased and adoption rates (people who choose to pay for household Internet connections) need to be higher. And the big providers who dominate the broadband marketplace have not provided the world's best infrastructure, or even the world's 10th best infrastructure.
Yet despite this market failure, which is analogous to the failure of Blue Cross and Aetna to deliver the highest life expectancies and lowest rates of infant mortality, the plan provides few other options.
That's not because there aren't any. Cities and states all over the country have been looking at the possibility of public networks. The FCC admits this may be a last resort for difficult-to-cover areas the market has no profitable solution for. Why a last resort? Why have 18 states passed laws banning municipalities from offering any wholesale or retail broadband services? Is it because they might do it better? More competition should never be considered a last resort.
Then there is the issue of wireless and mobile platforms. The promise of mobile net-to-phone applications is enormous in lowering costs from a computer costing hundreds of dollars to a cell phone. The plan says the Universal Service Fund, which provides lifeline telephone service will be overhauled over a ten-year period to provide a subsidy for high-speed Internet connections. This is a concrete step to address the problem of affordability.
But it's pretty clear it'll be a long time before you can do everything on a phone you can do with a state-of-the-art Verizon FIOS hookup. A digital divide can also be composed of the quick vs. the slow, not just the connected vs. the not connected. A separate but equal Internet slow lane won't bring the standard of living increases that are the goal of universal services. The US didn't build the highway system, the telephone service, or household mail delivery by providing partial services to some.
Finally we come to the third rail. The term that no one dares speak aloud. Structural separation. That may not sound too sexy, but here is what it means. Those who own the wires shouldn't also own the content that crosses over those wires. For example, Comcast, one of the nation's largest providers of cable and cable Internet services, wants to own NBC, which broadcasts content and transmits it over the Internet to millions via Comcast's cable and Internet connections.
The economic advantage of being able to prioritize your own content to your own network customers is obvious, It's a marketers dream come true; all those leveraged cross-promotional opportunities. Even an advocate like me can see the brilliance of it.
But the notion of a conflict of interest begins to rear an ugly head. If, thanks to skilled marketing, it's easier to access NBC content if you happen to be a Comcast triple-play customer, then -- by definition -- isn't it going to be a little harder, a tad less convenient, to access CBS? Your heart may not bleed for CBS, but move over to the Internet and think hard about independent artists and musicians trying to sell their wares, or impoverished nonprofits trying to draw traffic to their websites. Might they start to pay a price for the clever marketing schemes that draw in Comcast Internet subscribers to Comcast content? Yes, they might.
We have the potential for the worst of both worlds. The Internet we are used to thinking of as the world's most democratic communications medium is not currently protected by net neutrality regulation insisting on the equal treatment of all content. Providers from AT&T to Verizon to Comcast have been caught taking nibbles at shutting down content they saw as troublesome. (Comcast's venture into throttling will be chronicled in the upcoming documentary Barbershop Punk)
If it is enticing to prioritize certain content over other content because it is more bandwidth intensive, just think how enticing it may become if there is money to be made by delivering eyeballs to the content you own -- instead of the content you don't.
No structural separation and no net neutrality. Not an option for a democratic communications system.
So there is a lot of work to be done to translate this plan into the infrastructure and policy framework we need, and a few things to put back on the table that slid off along the way.
There are more than a few parallels to the health care reform conversation, but this one isn't over yet.