Is broadband a utility? Decide that, then create policy

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I’m struck by how often I think of the old broadband-as-utility debate during the legislative season. The question is – Is broadband a utility? Making that call would sure make some policy decisions easier.

Having attended several of Senator Schmit’s listening sessions across rural Minnesota in the last few months, I can tell you that people who attended think broadband is a utility. It was declared a utility in the UK in 2009. Wikipedia says “telephone services may occasionally be included within the definition” of utility. I’ve written on this topic before – as more services and jobs become accessible (sometimes exclusively available) online, it seems more difficult to claim broadband is a luxury or even commodity. It’s a necessity, recognizing that helps create policies that work to make broadband more accessible.

Newsweek just published an article that highlights the problems with policies that encourage but don’t mandate rural coverage.

“Can you stream me now?”

If the answer is no, you’re probably going to be looking at the spinning wheel of death on your laptop for a very long time. After making a big, bold promise to wire every corner of America, the telecom giants are running away from their vow to provide nationwide broadband service by 2020. For almost 20 years, AT&T, Verizon and the other big players have collected hundreds of billions of dollars through rate increases and surcharges to finance that ambitious plan, but after wiring the high-density big cities, they now say it’s too expensive to connect the rest of the country. But they’d like to keep all that money they banked for the project.

In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission announced the National Broadband Plan, which promised to provide 100 million American households with high-speed cable by 2020. Verizon has been expanding FiOS in major markets, and AT&T has been expanding its U-verse service. And now, instead of spending that war chest digging up streets and laying fiber cable, the cable and telephone companies have invested in a massive and very successful lobbying push. They are persuading state legislatures and regulatory boards to quietly adopt new rules—rules written by the telecoms—to eliminate their legal obligations to provide broadband service nationwide and replace landlines with wireless. This abrupt change in plans will leave vast areas of the country with poor service, slow telecommunications and higher bills.

These are private companies; they can do what they want with these funds. But it seems time for government to take a stand on making sure that the future of ubiquitous broadband isn’t left to market demands. (And not to go too full circle too early – but that means calling it a utility or human right as the UN did in 2011.) It doesn’t make sense to have education, healthcare and government services going online only to be inaccessible to some residents due to lack of broadband. It’s unfair and/or costly to serve those residents on the far reach of the digital divide.

Locally I think we’re seeing some of the fallout in current proposed legislation. Legislators support the idea of ubiquitous broadband (or the Minnesota broadband bill to work towards better broadband would have never passed) but they wrestle with regulations to make it happen. The MN Broadband Task Force recommended reinstating a sales tax exemption on telecom equipment. This is a good way to encourage broadband deployment – but without stipulations, this doesn’t necessarily do much to help build out rural areas because even with the tax break, the business case is still harder to make in remote and sparsely populated areas.

It’s a policy recommendation that promotes overall investment in infrastructure, but it doesn’t target un- under- or hard-to-serve parts of the state. I think there is a greater potential for helping to achieve our state’s broadband goals from the other broadband-specific legislation in Minnesota right now – the $100 million for broadband deployment because that money is specifically targeting unserved areas and will be administered by the Office of Broadband Development, which can ensure that funds go to unserved areas.