Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nationalizing the internets: Bandwidth Access As Fundamental Right?

I spend a lot of time on the internet, but not nearly as much as I spent online in college. I may have had more free time at the time, but additionally, the internet was a key to my education and I had to spend a lot of time using it to succeed. Not only does it put information and the search for information at your finger tips, it also forces the knowledge-seeking user to develop the skill of discerning credible sources from discredited ones, and weighing good arguments against bad ones.

Nowadays I have less time to play around on the internet (surprising as that may be coming from a blogger) but I spend my days thinking about the internet at my day an internet service provider. Given my belief that the internet is an absolute key to education and therefore a tool which when distributed unequally will lead to social inequality, working for a competing internet service provider (as opposed to what's known as an incumbent provider, the corporate giants like Comcast, Qwest, and AT&T) has stimulated a lot of thought about what internet access (and lack of access) means in today's world.

Aside from the value as an educational tool, there is the value bandwidth brings as a communications asset. Sure, there are other ways to contact people aside from email and Skype , but if the current disparity in bandwidth access continues, certain places and the knowledge of certain people will be out of reach to certain people. This is a serious problem. It's a quality of life issue. It's an inequality issue. It's an education issue. Which makes it over-all, an economic issue.

A couple months ago, The Times had an op-ed on the very subject of bandwidth inaccessibility in the United States, which overwhelmingly hurts those living in rural areas. Author Tim Wu compares broadband scarcity to oil scarcity, and big oil to big telecoms:

Like energy, bandwidth is an essential economic input. You can’t run an engine without gas, or a cellphone without bandwidth. Both are also resources controlled by a tight group of producers, whether oil companies and Middle Eastern nations or communications companies like AT&T, Comcast and Vodafone. That’s why, as with energy, we need to develop alternative sources of bandwidth.

Wired connections to the home — cable and telephone lines — are the major way that Americans move information. In the United States and in most of the world, a monopoly or duopoly controls the pipes that supply homes with information. These companies, primarily phone and cable companies, have a natural interest in controlling supply to maintain price levels and extract maximum profit from their investments — similar to how OPEC sets production quotas to guarantee high prices.

Wu also mentions that some cities across the U.S. and in Europe have built their own fiber optic networks which allow for more bandwidth transport and make bandwidth accessible in areas and to customers that big ISPs might not consider profitable. Though as someone working for a company trying to utilize a municipally owned and operated fiber network (allowing bandwidth to be sold to residents of the city just like electricity, water, and other utilities), I can say this path is not an easy one without any meaningful federal support or public dialogue about the importance of supporting publicly owned telecommunications access.

Like electrical wires and plumbing, bandwidth infrastructure should be a priority and a standard by which we judge all "developed" nations as advanced or backward, because this has such a heavy impact on the people of any nation. Worldwide bandwidth inequality is clearly even more pressing than that of the United States, where a presumed majority of people can access the internet in public libraries if not their own homes.

Too often it seems today's American leftists hesitate to label anything other than basic human necessities as fundamental rights which must be distributed evenly across populations. And to be clear, I say all this knowing that internet access is not a necessary physical life-or-death resource.

But I am of the school of thought that humans deserve more than just the right to not die. As we move into an "information economy" bandwidth access really does become access to the means of production.

Sure, if we're making a list of priorities, I'm not putting bandwidth above food or water or shelter. But I do think we're at a point where it's fair to start including bandwidth in our list of resources which should not be controlled and made scarce by profit-seeking corporations, but should instead be in the interest of the people to control, produce, and distribute evenly.

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