The Inalienable Right to Broadband

Should government at any level get involved in the deployment and ownership of high-speed data infrastructure?

Should government at any level get involved in the deployment and ownership of high-speed data infrastructure? Its a question that will have to be addressed eventually, as several readers pointed out in response to my March 4 article on the future of broadband access in the United States.

These days, its extremely unfashionable to suggest any role for government in just about any aspect of our lives. But its hard to escape the fact that our ability to participate as citizens and consumers is increasingly dependent on access to a dependable high-speed infrastructure. And while the notion of a digital divide is abstract conjecture today, tomorrow were going to have to grapple with whether some minimum level of broadband access has become a fundamental human right.

Motivated by cost savings, environmental concerns and increased productivity, governments, from city halls to Congress and the White House, are relocating records, services and operations to cyberspace. Eventually, anyone who is limited to dial-up access will become a second-class citizen, an issue that will never be fully resolved until we all have fiber to our homes or wireless connectivity as ubiquitous as the air.

The basic problem is that we have yet to divorce service from infrastructure. The former is unquestionably a vital free-market bazaar, and it should remain so. But the latter is a community franchise. We would never consider allowing private companies to determine who gets sewers or roads because those infrastructures are clearly essential to everyones well-being. Yet we seem content to let telephone and cable companies decide who gets high-speed access—and thus full participation in government, society and the economy.

The great failing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was that it tried to create competition by dictating that privately owned networks be opened to rival service providers. Understandably unhappy with this arrangement, phone companies spent time and energy inventing ways to foil these usurpers instead of deploying DSL. The big losers were consumers.

The only equitable long-range solution is to hold communities responsible for last-mile fiber networks and let all comers compete in delivering communications, data and entertainment services over publicly owned infrastructures.

Makes sense to me. What do you think? Tell me at rob_fixmer@ziffdavis.com.