Why Is the FCC So Reluctant to Reclassify Internet Service as a Public Utility?

We seem to agree that water, gas, electricity and telephone service have been things we cannot do without. Why not Internet service, too?
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We seem to agree that water, gas, electricity and telephone service have been things we cannot do without. Why not Internet service, too?

At the turn of the last century, the debate was about telephone service. It was decided then that the provision of plain old telephone service was something everyone in America needed and at an affordable cost. AT&T, already seen as the dominant provider, was given a monopoly in return for some regulation of its investments in equipment and infrastructure ... and its rates. Before too may years, the nation had ubiquitous and affordable telephone service.

The U.S. Congress created the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to be sure we wired the nation, and to watch over AT&T. Soon, the company provided such service to every part of the nation-rural and urban-and at an affordable rate, without discrimination. By doing so we grew the nation's economy, and the benefits were self-evident. The U.S. Court of Appeals, among others, has indicated we should see the provision of Internet service the same way.

The FCC recently put out a proposal (by a 3-2 vote) to allow providers to make special deals to satisfy the biggest users like Netflix, and keep the Internet open for everyone else. Nice try. The FCC, mindful of the politics on both sides of the debate, wants to have it both ways... but it probably won't pass muster.

The Telco's and cable companies are fearful that redefining the Internet as a public utility service would inhibit them; that the biggest users would not pay their fair share and the free market would suffer ... with the net result that more people would end up with poorer service, defeating the government's longer-term goals. The large users like Google don't want to be subject to pricing like Netflix who has already agreed to pay more for higher speeds.

I suspect our fundamental belief in the free market and our love affair with the concept of unbridled competition led us in the wrong direction a decade ago. Michael Powell, when he was FCC Chair, represented that free market mentality and when the provision of Internet service came up for discussion, he and others argued that the Internet was an information service not a public utility.

It's now 2014. We can accommodate the needs of the providers and still keep the net free to all other users. Maybe providers can carve out higher speed services like we treated private line services differently than plain old telephone service... and still accommodate the need for capital expenditures. By reclassifying the Internet as a public service, we will accelerate the wiring of America, but at a much more affordable rate; and in doing so, give the nation the shot in the arm it needs to remain competitive in the new, global, knowledge economy.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Telecommunication Union, America trails most developed nations in providing broadband, despite the Telco's and dominate cable companies assertion to the contrary.

It's time we wake up and recognize that a new economy dependent on broadband infrastructure is key to our success, indeed survival, in the world. With many nations practically giving away broadband and some nations even providing broadband 13 times faster that any U.S. providers, we should be ashamed of how we have stymied growth and development of the engine we created.

Broadband Internet service is a public service that every individual and organization should have, and the United States needs to regulate this service as a public utility, not leave it to the so-called free marketplace.

Eger was legal assistant to former FCC Chair Dean Burch (1970-1973).

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