One of the core issues being debated in Dubai right now is whether governments should be encouraged to mandate deep-packet inspection standards that make it easy for telcos to charge for and monitor internet communications crossing national borders. The U.S. government has taken on the fight against such an international norm in a bipartisan fashion, which is good news.
But while our government representatives in Dubai discuss global internet access, it’s worth considering some of the access limitations on our own soil.
Here are the facts: Approximately 19 million Americans can’t subscribe to high-speed internet access because they live in areas that private companies believe are too expensive to serve. Internet access is still very expensive compared to the rest of the developed world – a third of Americans don’t or can’t subscribe.
Internet access in America remains relatively slow – particularly when it comes to upload speeds, the very feature necessary for cloud computing and creating user-generated content. Cable companies dominate wired internet access and face no real competition or pricing pressure; telcos like Verizon and AT&T have retreated to wireless, which will never be a full substitute for wired capacity; and we still have no plan for a nation-wide upgrade to fiber.
Congress created the FCC to make available to “all the people of the United States” a “rapid, efficient, Nation-wide” communications service “at reasonable charges.” But we have failed in that task when it comes to the basic communications need of our time: high-speed internet access. Reliable information access is central to every policy we care about, including education, health, and even national security.
Bottom line: For $30 a month, we must be able to provide high-speed internet access to every American. This fiber connection service should include voice, data, and basic broadcast channels at speeds that meet global standards. It’s embarrassing that one of the most innovative nations in the world can’t do this.
And if private providers don’t want to do it, local and federal government needs to undertake this infrastructure investment. We need to build fiber rings around every U.S. town and city.
Yet we’re moving in the opposite direction. Both Verizon and AT&T have refused to take subsidies from the FCC aimed at ensuring rural service. The reason? They’re worried about regulatory oversight that might follow from taking the money, and they’d rather focus on wireless.
More troubling, though, is the perspective – espoused by the giant telecommunications companies – that it’s “our wires, our rules”.
Verizon, for example, has challenged the FCC’s Open Internet Rules before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The company already sued the FCC earlier this year for forcing data roaming over its lines – a claim that was flatly rejected this past week.
But now Verizon’s making an even more troubling assertion: that it’s a speaker with First Amendment rights … just like a newspaper. In other words, the company is claiming that its business of transmitting bits amounts to speech.
Needless to say, this argument is legally wrong. As Democratic Representatives Henry Waxman and Anna Eshoo (California), and Edward Markey (Massachussetts) have warned:
Although this First Amendment issue is being raised by Verizon in the context of the Open Internet Order, there is no apparent limit to the company’s claim. If the court accepts Verizon’s argument, the role of Congress in enacting communications policy through power granted by the Commerce Clause – including efforts to protect consumers and promote competition in contexts far removed from the Open Internet rules themselves – could be radically undermined.
Along with a group of other former federal officials – including former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) – I signed an amicus brief in the case last month, urging the court to reject Verizon’s startling constitutional assertion.
The major telecom companies already have plenty of power on Capitol Hill when it comes to writing laws. But they shouldn’t be allowed to rewrite the Constitution.
Unfortunately, Verizon is not alone in its quest to finally end oversight over American data networks: AT&T filed a petition just last month with the FCC, suggesting wholesale deregulation of its data facilities. This move would eliminate the American social contract that provides for a reasonably priced, privacy-protective communications service for everyone.
So while our government representatives are off in Dubai, let’s not forget that we have some work to do on our own policies and infrastructure.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
It's Time to Fix the Pitifully Slow, Expensive Internet Access in the U.S. | Wired Opinion | Wired.com