from utility-essential department
Let’s stop ignoring the obvious: high-speed Internet access service is a public service and must be regulated as such.
American consumers agree. A Consumer Reports survey earlier this year found that four in five consumers (80%) think broadband service is as important as water and electricity. Indeed, broadband has become the essential service in the daily lives of 21st century consumers. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted this fact, as many of us depend on an internet connection to work from home, attend virtual classrooms, receive medical care through telehealth services, stay in contact with their friends and family and have fun.
The pandemic has proven how essential a reliable, fast and affordable internet connection is today. However, unlike water, electricity, or even telephone service, broadband Internet service is not universally available, nor regulated to guarantee access, guarantee fair prices, or promote market competition.
As a result, there is a deeply troubling “digital divide” between Americans who have and can afford internet service, and those who cannot. The divide is twofold, as access and affordability determine whether consumers can connect. Access is designed like a wired home for broadband Internet, and affordability is determined by a consumer’s ability to pay the service price charged by the Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Unfortunately, Federal Communications Commission officials have proven unable to bridge this gap. In fact, the decision a few years ago to reclassify broadband as an “information service” instead of what it clearly is a “telecommunications service” has virtually removed the Commission from any meaningful oversight role over the ISPs. The next Congress must right this wrong and adopt a new framework to govern broadband service, ensuring that it is both accessible and affordable for consumers.
Certainly, the FCC could restore its regulatory authority over broadband by requalifying it as a telecommunications service. The 2005 Supreme Court decision in Brand X established that the Commission has the necessary flexibility to take such classification decisions, decisions with real consequences for consumers that go beyond esoteric legal exercises.
The very question of whether broadband is an information service or a telecommunications service has been at the heart of the current fight for net neutrality for almost two decades. At the risk of grossly oversimplifying, a classification of information services roughly translates to less regulation. Conversely, a telecommunications service designation provides the FCC with a stronger set of tools rooted in common carrier authority, with powers to better foster competition, ensure non-discriminatory access, and cap rates that are too expensive for consumers.
The FCC correctly classified broadband as a telecommunications service in 2015 as part of its Open internet order, allowing the issuance of common sense net neutrality rules. This action was approved by a federal court in 2016 US Telecom decision. Sadly, all of that was dropped when the current Commission backtracked a year later and decided to reclassify broadband again, this time as an information service, as a fundamental part of its repeal of the rules of net neutrality of 2015. While it is obvious to us that broadband is a telecommunications service, the classification debate – read the lgood justification for broadband declassification in the Restoring Internet Freedom Order – became a medieval exercise in determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
The back-and-forth war for net neutrality waged over and over again at the FCC must end. Make no mistake, ensuring an open Internet is an important political fight, but the FCC’s failures reveal a deeper problem: how can we better regulate Internet service provided by ISPs, which is NOT to be confused with the regulation of the Internet, as is so often the case. crowd lament of anti-net neutrality.
The current status quo cannot be tolerated and will not increase affordable broadband access. Absent of much more than weak transparency requirements, ISPs are free from any real rules imposed by the FCC or Congress. Additionally, ISPs like Comcast and Charter are mostly isolated from the competition—a study published last summer revealed that these two companies alone have a monopoly on 47 million American consumers, and even more (an additional 33 million) if we disregard DSL as a real competitive choice in 2020. Adding to the misery, the prices charged by ISPs are completely impenetrable. Prices vary from neighborhood to neighborhood within the same city, and yet it is unclear how prices are determined or if they are consistent.
Although FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and others ridiculed the 2015 Open Internet Order as “utilitarian-type” regulation, consumers now recognize that broadband service is exactly that: a public service. It should be governed as such for the benefit of consumers. Not ISPs.
A new Congress will be sworn in next January. He can settle this debate once and for all. We can no longer endure the see-saw classification debate at the FCC, the winner of which depends on a presidential election every four years. Therefore, legislation must be passed to grant the FCC clear new authority to govern broadband service as a telecommunications service, an essential public service.
Emboldened by the power to regulate broadband as a public service, the Commission can ensure affordability by applying price caps, particularly where there is no effective competition and prices are too high. Alternatively, the FCC could stimulate competition by forcing ISPs to unbundle their networks to allow new entrants to offer service. Utility-style regulation could also be used to mandate deployment in underserved areas and to standardize service offerings to ensure consumers can afford a package to meet their day-to-day remote work and business needs. online learning. Finally, as demonstrated by the 2015 Open Internet Order, utility regulation enables the FCC to require non-discriminatory access to ISP networks, the basis for re-establishing strong net neutrality rules.
Additionally, Congress needs to fund a massive Internet infrastructure project to bring broadband into the home of every American family. Estimates that 42 million Americans do not have access to fixed broadband service is unacceptable in 2020. Children trying to attend online classes should not have to drive to a parking lot to use free WiFi offered by libraries, sports stadiums or fast food restaurants. And although rural areas generally suffer from a lack of broadband access, it is also an urban problem. the Gotham Gazette recently reported that: “According to city data, 40% of households in the city – home to approximately 3.4 million people – do not have both home and mobile internet connections, and 18% do not have neither.”
Congress should also consider measures to make broadband affordable for all Americans. A CR survey from earlier this year found that consumers paid an average of $66 per month for internet service. Coupled with other costs and the difficulties posed by the pandemic, it is simply too expensive for many families. Borrow a very old cable lawCongress could require ISPs to offer all consumers a set of “basic services” that deliver affordable and reliable broadband at the speeds required for today’s bandwidth-intensive applications. Comcast already does it in a way (originally as a condition to its acquisition of NBC Universal in 2011), so the idea isn’t exactly a stretch.
These are just a few ideas for increasing broadband access and affordability. It’s not rocket science and it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The internet has proven to be obvious and essential for Americans to succeed in the 21st century economy.
With funding from Congress and a new assignment of authority and purpose to the FCC to treat broadband as the essential public service that it is, the government can – and must – connect many more Americans to the Internet and between them.
Jonathan Schwantes is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Washington DC office of Consumers Reports, where he focuses on telecommunications issues affecting consumers in the broadband, television, media and wireless markets.
Filed Under: broadband, essential, fcc, internet access, public utility