• United States

We need a broadband policy

Mar 13, 20064 mins

The Internet has become a foundation of our culture and our businesses, and it is hard to recall how we did things such as shop and bank and read the news and keep up with our friends BI (Before Internet). But on a national scale the Internet still isn’t as pervasive and as effective as it could be or as we thought it would be by now.

This leads me to Johna Till Johnson’s column last week, Keep the feds out of broadband. In this, Johnson discussed why a national broadband policy isn’t needed. But I think that ignores a big issue – what our culture needs. We’ll come back to that in a minute.

Let’s look at her arguments: “Who are we to dictate how people should spend their money?” In reality, a national broadband policy would not actually force people to spend money.

On the contrary, it would give them the opportunity to spend money if they wanted on a service that would arguably be more valuable to society than the telephone has been.

Her second point is, “There’s no guarantee such a scheme will actually work,” and she is absolutely right, it might not. On the other hand we can be pretty certain that without such a policy broadband will remain limited to those who live in the right places.

The right places will be the areas that the telcos can service at a profit. Don’t get me wrong – making money is exactly what the telcos have to do; they are for-profit entities, which means that making a profit comes before anything else. Taking that as a given, it follows that they will ignore fulfilling cultural needs unless there’s money in it or they are required to do so.

She’s also completely on the money with her final point about the feds being willing to prevent municipal- and community-funded broadband services, but that’s a separate issue from a national broadband policy. What she highlights is simply corrupt politics. A national broadband policy would hopefully trump any such silliness and allow for multiple ways for broadband service to be funded.

Her solution lies in her belief that the free market will provide what is needed. This sounds fine in theory, but the free market isn’t a level playing field. There isn’t enough competition in broadband nationwide and the telcos will service users who fit their profitability model before anyone else. Moreover, those users will get whatever level of service the telcos can get away with.

At the heart of the problem is that the telcos have no overriding reason to do good; they simply strive, like Google, to do as little evil as possible. Looked at from another viewpoint, the telcos will do as much evil as they can get away with without getting into trouble. To the telcos, their evil may not seem so. To us, it is obvious. It is poor availability, bad service and lousy support. They are just trying to make a profit.

Unfortunately we are collectively and individually held hostage by lack of choice, which lets the telcos work their evil, and the consequences for our culture and our economy could be serious in the long run.

I suspect that part of getting what we want in terms of a national policy would be to define a lowest level of service available to everyone. But if you want more, then you have to pay for it. And therein lies the rub: Welcome to the tiered Internet.

And why not? If the basic service lets you, say, run a single phone line, watch television and browse the Web all at the same time, then wouldn’t that fulfill the average consumer’s needs? Want more? You have to pay.

It seems to me that we can’t do without a broadband policy if we believe that the Internet is as valuable as we think it is, and if that’s so, tiered service will inevitably become part of the grand plan.

Is there a better way? Tell me at or on Gibbsblog.


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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