Now that net neutrality is the law of the land, you may feel inclined to pat yourself on the back for a job well done. After all, a big reason the FCC backed net neutrality was the outpouring of support for it.
But getting FCC backing was the easy part. Now the hard work begins. There’s plenty that remains to be done, from bringing high-speed broadband access to the entire U.S. to erasing the digital divide and more.
For a start, the U.S. needs to become a world leader in high-speed broadband rather than a laggard. The Ookla Net Index, which rates countries by actual download speeds, puts the U.S. at 26th in the world, with an average speed of 33.27 Mbps. That’s well below the world leader, Singapore, at 111.48 Mbps. And it also puts us below countries not known for their tech prowess, such as Romania, Bulgaria, Macau and Estonia.
Broadband competition would be welcomed as well, because we don’t have it now. According to figures compiled by The New York Times, 55% of Americans have only one broadband provider to choose from if they want speeds of between 25 Mbps and 49 Mbps, and 61% of Americans have only one choice of broadband provider if they want speeds beyond 50 Mbps.
One reason for the lack of competition is that laws in 20 states outlaw or restrict municipalities from building their own broadband networks. Thankfully, when the FCC ruled in favor of net neutrality, it also struck down those rules. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler explained the action this way: “The bottom line of these matters is that some states have created thickets of red tape designed to limit competition. What we are doing is cutting away that red tape.”
The digital divide between the haves and have-nots needs to be shrunk. Back in 2009, Susan Crawford, President Obama’s special assistant for technology and innovation, warned, “We are creating two Americas where the wealthy have access … while others are left on a bike path, unable to join in the social and economic benefits that the Internet brings.” The same is true today. Last fall, the Financial Times did an analysis of broadband access in the U.S. based on census data, and found that the majority of families in some of the country’s poorest cities don’t have a broadband connection, which is “exacerbating inequality in the world’s biggest economy.”
The newspaper’s findings were stark: “Just 45 per cent of households with an income of less than $20,000 a year have broadband whereas the rate for those earning $75,000 or more is 91 per cent. About a third of African American and Hispanic households are unconnected compared to 20 per cent for white households and 10 per cent for Asian households.”
There are many roadblocks to fixing all this, but one of the most important ones is political, not technical. Special interests, particularly in the telecom industry, wield too much power. One reason is the revolving door between the telecom industry and the government agencies that regulate it.
Take just one example. Michael Powell, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, lobbied against the establishment of net neutrality and excoriated the FCC for its vote, saying, “Today, the FCC took one of the most regulatory steps in its history. The commission has breathed new life into the decayed telephone regulatory model and applied it to the most dynamic, freewheeling and innovative platform in history.”
Powell is no newcomer to the doings of the FCC. President George W. Bush made him chairman of the FCC, and Powell made sure that under his watch net neutrality wouldn’t become the law of the land.
This kind of revolving door should be outlawed. And the power of campaign donations needs to be curbed as well. Until that happens, it’s not likely that we’ll see great progress toward more broadband competition, higher broadband speeds and a narrower digital divide.