Crossposted at Open Left.
Senator Dick Durbin has begun a several-night series of conversations with the blogosphere on how to build a set of principles for improving American broadband and Internet development. This is a watershed moment and a fantastic (if long overdue) chance to make the peopleâ€™s voices heard on this most important issue. You donâ€™t have to be a tech policy wonk to understand the multilayered importance of the Internet, and you donâ€™t need to read all the latest blogs or whatever to know that our countryâ€™s Internet development is appalling.
So with that in mind, hereâ€™s what I put to Senator Durbinâ€“a few basic principles for what our country needs to build its Internet future.
* Net Neutrality: All companies must agree to uphold the essential rule that carriers do not have the right to favor one form of content over another. Infrastructure providers should be free to charge content providers fees to host their services, just as you pay a Web host to host your site. But infrastructure providers should not be able to block end users from reaching your content unless you pay extra. Nor should they deprioritize access to your content in favor of their own or anyone else who does pay their fee. Network providers profit from building networks, content providers make content, and the end user should be free to choose the network provider that provides them the best service, the content provider that makes them the best content, etc. It’s that simple.
* Carterfone: The Internet should be managed under the same standard as the 1968 Carterfone decision, which enabled non-telephone devices to connect to telephone lines as long as they did not harm the network. This led to the birth of answering machines, fax machines, and dial-up access to the Internet. Now the Internet powers a host of new applications, such as VoIP, Skype, podcasting, and so on–and these should all be protected by the same standard as Carterfone.
* Wireless Access: Wireless providers enjoy the same sort of market-distorting monopolies as traditional telecoms, including locking devices in to their network, punitive contract fees and termination fees, dropping customers for complaining too much, and so on. Wireless mobile Internet is becoming an economic, social, and political force just as “landline” Internet is–you can pay your bills via your phone, check your e-mail, get public access information and emergency messages, and so on. The iPhone is an apex example of how monopoly distorts the market–the handset was completely built by Apple, with no subsidizing from AT&T, but you still have to pay up to $600 for it, as if it had been. Further, it does not work with any provider or any other network but AT&T, so if you leave AT&T’s service, you’ve ended up with a shiny $600 paperweight. Wireless providers should be held to the principles of Net Neutrality and open access, and be governable under the Carterfone standard–any device should connect to any network.
* “Affordable Housing” for Broadband: As has been documented extensively of late here and elsewhere, incumbent telecom providers are rolling out services chiefly to rich urban and exurban areas, catering mostly to white, middle-to-high income residents. Since the incumbent telecom companies failed to get favorable broadband legislation passed in Congress, they’ve been rolling out video franchising legislation through intensive lobbying and kickbacks on the state level. These agreements enable telecoms to bypass existing regulations for cable companies and start buildouts in areas of their choosing, a practice known as “redlining.” This not only screws the neighborhoods being locked out of Internet service, but the cable companies as well–they’re forced to compete with an albatross around their necks that telecoms are bypassing. Federal legislation should mandate that just as new housing development projects set aside space for “workforce housing,” any new buildout should set aside funds to develop low-cost broadband connectivity (such as naked DSL) when rolling out expensive new services. Any loss of revenue incurred from these buildouts should be more than adequately regained by the new customers the buildout will bring in from across the income levels. Further, Federal law should set a “floor” for states to negotiate franchise agreements that enables municipalities and towns to add additional conditions before approving a buildout. I also recommend support of Sen. Lautenberg’s Community Broadband Act, which would encourage public-private partnerships for broadband development and prevent states from blocking municipalities’ negotiations with multiple providers.
* Reform the Universal Service Fund: A common complaint of telecoms against building out to low-income or rural areas is that it’ll cost too much. But there already is a massive fund for this very purpose–the USF. Yet more often than not, the fund goes right back into telecoms’ coffers with no money spent on actual development. The USF needs to be much more strictly enforced and managed specifically to fund rural broadband infrastructure development–I’d even say that telecoms which charge the USF should submit to regular reviews by third parties (The GAO, perhaps?) to monitor their progress. Those companies that fail to meet the goals should stop charging the USF to their customers, thus saving them money.
* Better Data Collection: I recommend support of Sen. Daniel Inouye’s “Broadband Data Improvement Act,” which would mandate improved standards for data collection on broadband penetration, rather than the flawed system currently employed by the FCC, as well as authorizing the GAO to conduct its own independent surveys of broadband adoption and availability. Only through the most comprehensive, honest, available information gathering can we make the right decisions.