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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