Bridging the digital divide: Edwards gets it

By Martin Bosworth

Those of you that read my personal blog or have followed my work at ConsumerAffairs.Com know that the concept of net neutrality is a hugely important issue to me. The concept of the Internet is built on the democratization of access–that everyone can speak their minds, share ideas, and interact on many levels. It’s as American a concept as baseball and apple pie, and the idea that telecoms such as AT&T and Verizon want to turn the Internet into gated communities like AOL, where all you do is passively consume the content they give you is, frankly, bullshit.

That’s why it did my heart proud to see John Edwards openly address the FCC on this issue not once, but twice–first on the issue of using wireless spectrum to build a national broadband network, and then directly on the NN issue itself. Edwards gets what many others in this debate do not–that net neutrality and broadband access are not just issues of free speech, but of economic growth and development:

Equal access to the Internet is also important for growing our economy. Small businesses and entrepreneurs cannot hope to outbid big companies for preferred status on the Web. It is worth asking whether new businesses like Amazon and eBay could have emerged into fast-growing powerhouses if they had been shunted to the slow lane of the information superhighway.

When barely 50 percent of American citizens have access to broadband, that’s millions of Americans who won’t be able to effectively create and disseminate ideas and new business over the Web, because they’re stuck slogging through a dial-up connection. Why, you ask, don’t big telecoms just build out to rural communities?

Simple–there’s not enough upfront money in it. The spawn of Ma Bell would rather focus on building out to rich communities that can afford to pay the high prices for their services, thus more quickly recouping the costs of development and pleasing the shareholders. And meanwhile, the rest of the country gets left further and further behind, because the incumbent monopoly doesn’t want any real competition for its services.

Edwards gets this, and I’m delighted to see him take this kind of stand. I don’t know if this is a result of him listening to other advisers or telling Mudcat to know his role, but I’m glad he’s done it, in any event. I’ll be watching the other candidates and paying close attention to how they address this issue–or don’t address it.

7 replies »

  1. If certain outfits are consuming a disproportionate amount of resources–and profiting from it–shouldn’t they be expected to pay more?

    Companies spent billions of dollars running fiber optic cable all over the country. Having the government step in to compete with them is just plain wrong. Technology is a declining cost industry. But the thing is that the costs never decline unless people are willing to first pay the high price. So if the government competes now and destroys the profitability of an entire industry, will companies be less willing to invest heavily on new technologies in the future for fear of government competition?

  2. One thing that I struggle with regarding net neutrality is the issue of spam. The only truly effective way to kill spamming is to remove the economic incentive from the spammers. Given that spam income relies on cheap access, increasing the cost of access is the only sure-fire way to kill the spam industry. So how do we increase access costs to spammers but still keep from screwing over all the legitimate businesspeople and consumers?

    I’ve been thinking of a per-email charge, with the first N emails free, and then increasing the charge-per-email logarithmically thereafter. If you’re a legitmate businessperson, you’ll just pass the costs on to your customers. If you’re a privite individual, we’ll set the free line low enough that it won’t catch most of you, and since the charges go up very slowly at first anyway, you’ll probably be fine. But if you’re in a very low margin business like spamming, you’ll be driven out of business. While I think this would work, and while I think it’s fair, does it run afoul of net neutrality? IMO, not if everyone, private citizens and businesses, rich and poor, pays the same rate. But you, or other commentors, might disagree.

  3. Brian,

    Actually, there’s a service called Goodmail that prioritizes subscriber e-mail and allows it to bypass spam filters for a small fee. A number of consumer groups and grassroots organizations opposed AOL and Yahoo adopting it for precisely the reason you cited–the high costs would drive small businesses to extinction.

    I’m willing to live with spam, honestly. I delete it every time it shows up in my inbox and regularly teach people how to avoid phishing and pharming e-mails. The best defense is education and vigilance, but your mileage may vary.

  4. The South African government certainly doesn’t get it. Our state monopoly ensures that we have the worst and slowest and least effective broadband of any emerging economy. Less than 1% has access and it’s flipping expensive. Perhaps you can send Edwards here?

    I have capped internet access (i.e. if I use too much I get cut off) and it costs around US$ 0.50 per meg.

  5. Martin, I’m tired of living with spam and having to spend $30 per year to Spamcop to filter it for me. But it’s not whether you and I can handle it, but rather the money we’re all paying indirectly because of the costs of spam.

    Maybe this would be a better topic to address on its own, though.