Only Connect – Should Broadband Access Be a Right?

Finland makes broadband access a right, $7 billion US stimulus for rural broadband improvements

This week gave us two reasons to reconsider the state of broadband connectivity in the US.

First, Finland has announced that it will guarantee broadband access as a right for all its citizens:

Starting next July, every person in Finland will have the right to a one-megabit broadband connection, says the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Finland is the world’s first country to create laws guaranteeing broadband access.

The government had already decided to make a 100 Mb broadband connection a legal right by the end of 2015. On Wednesday, the Ministry announced the new goal as an intermediary step.

Second, Yochai Benkler and the Berkman Center released a study of broadband Internet transitions and policy. A global review of how connected various countries are – and the policies that have performed well to stimulate connectivity, both in-home and mobile. While the U.S. has over 7 billion in stimulus dollars going toward improvements in rural broadband, money isn’t the same as policy, and it is hard to dispute that we have fallen behind:

On those few measures where we have reasonably relevant historical data, it appears that the United States opened the first decade of the 21st centuries in the top quintile in penetration and prices, and has been surpassed by other countries over the course of the decade.

Benkler makes it clear that government policy has played a role in our decline. The U.S. began lagging as soon as the FCC abandoned it’s position of “open access” and allowed telecom companies to lock down networks. (see page 12 of the report).

As our economy continues to lose mass in favor of information-based goods (U.S. exports lost 50% of their physical weight per dollar from 1993 to 1999*) and we continue to see the decoupling of workforce from workplace, connectivity is a critical factor in economic exchange and competitive advantage. Countries that build wide, fast networks to the last mile will have a huge leg up.

If government works best when it creates the conditions that allow citizens the maximum opportunity to succeed, two things seem clear. First, broadband access is a key piece of infrastructure and a necessary condition to many new jobs and opportunities. Second, our policies should steer back towards open access to support that right. Benkler is pretty clear that countries running half a generation ahead of the US (Japan, Korea etc.) are doing so as a result of open access policies. Achieving these ends does not necessarily require the government to own (or pay for) the solution. As Benkler notes on page 13 “there are models of high performing countries, like France, that invested almost nothing directly, and instead relied almost exclusively on fostering a competitive environment.”

On a personal note, I divide my time between the US and France and I can tell you, my French broadband (in a rural, medieval village mind you) crushes any corporate workplace connection in the US.

What do you think? Should broadband access be considered a right? Is “universal connectivity” just too big a job? And what should government’s policy-making role be in all of this?

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  • Frank Ch. Eigler

    “Should broadband access be considered a right?”

    Not if you want genuine rights to have any meaning.

    “positive” as in “enslavement of your peers to provide something for you”. Meh.

  • Seems like a typo throughout this essay… better to replace the word “right” with “entitlement”.

    (The US Bill of Rights describes things citizens may do that the political class may not restrict. The definition of an entitlement is incomplete unless it also describes who will be forced to provide that good for the entitled class. Two different classes of things.)

  • Not to rain on your parade, but as others have noted, there are more important “universal rights”.

  • Naoko Komura

    Definitely. Having access to the information and knowledge on the Internet has tremendous impact on how we make our decisions in our daily lives. People who do not have net access fall behind in not only in economic exchange, but lack access to the development and the change of policies which have trend to be open for public comment through the Internet.

  • Andrew

    Absolutely not. There are other ways of gaining information other than the internet. Why work for something you can get for free?

  • bowerbird

    i don’t know if i myself would use the word “right”.

    and i think _differential_ access — the digital divide —
    is a worse problem than any specific degree of access.

    nonetheless, i greatly admire what finland has done.

    especially as it bears on the issue of _education_,
    which i am somewhat chagrined to notice that you
    have not even mentioned in this (albeit short) post.


  • I am very open to the notion that the term “right” should be reserved for other uses – perhaps “entitlment” is a better idea?

    However I would make a few points here. First, thinking of broadband access as a necessary condition for civic engagement and personal success in the 21st century just makes sense (see my post above for why). It is from this point of view that you approach policy. Otherwise policy is just a hostage to tactical argument and, in these cases, lobbyists win. When lobbyists win you get oligopolies that remove competition and choice (sound familiar?).

    Second, some of the comments here remind me a bit of seniors arguing that they don’t want government intruding on healthcare b/c it will take away their Medicare. I think that we look for government to set many conditions that we rely on for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and, once these are in place, we fail to really notice them – or consider that once upon a time someone had to argue for their existence. Should the same argument being made above (essentially, why pay for an entitlement that another person uses?) apply to education? After all, why should I pay for another child’s education? By Frank’s definition above would that constitute “enslavement” (his word not mine).
    If I can afford personal security (gated communities, rented security officers) should we get rid of police?
    These may sound radical but neither of these services, public education or police security are eternal. They evolved to suit the needs of society. Times change, society changes with it and laws follow to codify the new agreements we make on how to best live together in relative harmony.

    Times have changed. Broadband access will likely play an ever increasing role is individual success. It is critical to mine – and, I would argue, to almost any reader of this blog. So why wouldn’t we approach policy from that point of view. Call it an entitlement, a right etc.

  • bowerbird

    i agree. i applaud this as a _tremendously_ enlightened policy.

    i see all kinds of wonderful progress being made simply because
    creative people can assume the populace has a large bandwidth…


  • As you point out, the Benkler paper stresses the importance of open access, whether determined by policy or by competition. The US has allowed reduced competition by carriers and so perhaps it is time to change policy and force open access to create competition from new services. We could also improve access by offering public services too.

    The goal should not just be ubiquitous service and high speed. We need seamless service too. Having a paid entry point for every WiFi spot is more than annoying and plain costly, especially for short access via smart phones.

    So I don’t think broadband should be a “right” or “entitlement”, but I do think we need to change policies to drive high quality and high access through plentiful supply.

  • Perhaps the use of the word ‘right’ here isn’t appropriate for bandwidth guarantee, but there are some related formulations that would be appropriate, such as one modeled on the Second Amendment:

    “The right of the people to create, connect to, and communicate via information networks shall not be infringed.”

    Or perhaps a formulation based in part on the First Amendment:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of monopoly on the the right of the people to peaceably create, connect to, and communicate via information networks.”

    A little awkward, I know.

    Anyway, we don’t have a ‘right to food’, a ‘right to medicine’, a ‘right to electricity’, or a ‘right to shelter’, even though as a society we do make some efforts along all those lines, but we do have a concept of public ‘rights-of-way’ which I think might serve as an analogy here.

    In fact, part of the reason the US broadband market is in such poor shape is because the natural monopolies of public rights-of-way (both physical and spectrum) were (and are) given to carriers for very little consideration, and thereafter treated as an entitlement by them to be enforced by the government.

    It is not inappropriate for payment to be required to use infrastructure, but to have the most commonly used venue for public and private speech governed by a legal regime that most resembles a system of privately owned toll roads seems shortsighted at best.

  • ironchefoklahoma

    …my French broadband (in a rural, medieval village mind you) crushes any corporate workplace connection in the US. What do you think?

    I think you’ve been over-indulging on the local wines. Care to share your effective upload/download speeds?

    Previous responders have adequately schooled you on the differences between rights and entitlements. Let’s also remember that any such scheme would not be administered by utopian technocrats in a consequence-free vacuum. It would, like any other government entity, be subject to the effects of regulatory capture, capricious funding, and the Iron Law of Bureaucracy. I need to see a serious failure of the market to provide these services before I hand the whiskey and car keys to any government.

  • Nic

    Perhaps “right” is the incorrect word to use. I’m not sure “entitlement” is correct either but that’s closer.

    Broadband has been likened to electricity in terms of necessity and I agree. The internet is fast becoming a primary medium for just about everything and if you cannot get access to it, you are at a real disadvantage. It’s ok for me, I have a lot of choice. I can compare broadband packages and take my pick but there are a lot of people who can’t even get dial-up. Something has to be done there.

    I don’t think broadband can be established as a right. But it already is a necessity.