a modest proposal

Former F.C.C. commissioner Michael Copps is pitching a simple, commonsensical idea: reclassify broadband internet service (you know, that thing which is eating your wallet) to make the companies providing it “common carriers.”

Those of us old enough to remember pre-broadband days, when we used our phone lines to connect to the internet, may also remember that what started as relatively expensive, billed-per-hour service (America Online back then) dropped to dirt cheap use-as-much-as-your-wife-will-tolerate-the-phone-being-tied-up service, generally for about $9 a month.

Reason? Because any company could go into the internet service provider business and use the telephone lines.

Contrast that with the state of affairs post-broadband, what we’ve come to accept as the natural order of things: one, or at most two, companies in a given area offering service, with a price for decent speed of no less than $30 or $40 a month, and with the companies involved constantly raising rates and trying to impose data caps.

Copps writes:

Truth is, our country isn’t blazing many trails when it comes to getting high-speed, low-cost, open broadband out to all our people. I know there are some who argue that America is a veritable broadband wonderland, a triumph of free market entrepreneurship that puts us at the forefront of high-tech nations. But stubborn facts belie their easy optimism. The United States, originator of so much of the technology behind the Internet, has fallen from leader to laggard in broadband penetration. According to the OECD, our country is 16th in wired broadband connections per 100 residents. Worse, comparative research shows that Americans are paying more and getting less than wired broadband consumers in competitor countries. The Department of Justice has noted that the local wireless marketplace offers consumers little in the way of choice, even as mobile data plans are saddled with data caps that harm consumption and innovation alike. And once again, for the third time, the FCC found itself unable to certify that we enjoy a competitive wireless marketplace. Surely the time is now for proactive and pro-consumer measures to make quality broadband universally affordable once and for all.

So the current state of play when it comes to internet service isn’t just a pain in the ass for individuals. It’s bad for the economy, while helping a very few players. Reclassifying broadband as “common carrier” would allow for more competition.

I don’t really hold out much hope the F.C.C. will do what Copps recommends; even if the commission has the appetite to make the change, which is questionable, Congress would likely raise holy hell on behalf of the telcos and cable industry. (Broadband is the growth part of cable tv, at this point.)

Still, it’s an interesting time for the commission: at the same time this proposal surfaces, (and there’s a general sense of discontent  with the broadband industry), the F.C.C. also has before it proposals to revitalize the a.m. radio band. 2014 would be a very good year for the dedicated listener if the commission were to do the right thing in both cases.

(Read all of Copp’s proposal here. I first read about it at Ars Technica: read the Ars article here.)

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