Back to the Future
President Obama reclassified the internet as a utility, as many of you might recall, only to have President Trump reclassify it back as an information service. What is the significance of these classifications? Under the older, original classification as an information service, the internet was off-limits to regulators. Like section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, this classification matched the hands-off policy in the ‘90s when the internet went public under the Clinton Administration. When I first began teaching information computer science, I called this era “thousand flowers bloom.” And bloom they did. Google and Facebook burst forth, for better and for worse. The better hardly needs explaining. The worse? Reining in these entities will now be more challenging than if the United States had a more thoughtful policy about foreseeable concerns such as cybersecurity and consumer privacy. More about those subjects in future installments. Today the focus is on something more elemental: broadband deployment.
It is time to end the ping-pong match that has been this county’s policy about broadband deployment. One of the first moves that President Biden should make upon assuming office is to switch the definition of the internet back to a utility. And then go to Congress and get legislation that will instantiate that point in a way that a future Republican president cannot switch it back again administratively. Both actions are necessary. Congress must stand up to a new era of the internet policies that begins with a financial commitment to build out broadband. Because broadband is not a one-time buy but an ongoing endeavor, the F.C.C. must become the steward of that project, fortified by the tax on telecommunications services similar to what supported electrification and telephone services historically. The F.C.C. cannot impose a tax – which is a “regulation” – on an information service, but it can and should on a utility.
That the nation that developed the invention of packet-switching into a world communications framework slipped from number one to somewhere in the sixties internationally should raise a natural concern. History explains why. President Roosevelt pushed for the Rural Electrification Act to aid people who lacked it, to address health concerns in the southeastern part of the U.S. (ringworm was a particular problem), and because he knew that the United States could not long remain out of the growing global conflicts. Planners don’t go into a world war with large swaths of the American agricultural economy not functioning efficiently. An agricultural economy supports urban, industrial economy. An urban, industrial economy supports the military economy. Roosevelt prepared for war by lining up all of the proverbial ducks. As the United States struggles to keep pace with the economic growth of China especially but other countries and global sectors overall, the same principle holds true. Our country can only be as efficient as the weakest components of our domestic economy.
This issue became central to my campaign platform when I threw my hat in the ring in 2017. I grew up in a city (Rochester). With some time in Binghamton and Buffalo, I then lived most of my adult life in Ithaca. Traveling among and between these locations I observed how rural, low population areas seemed to sink further and further into poverty. Working in IT clarified the problem: the inability of communities to keep pace with the growth of the internet. Not only did this absence turn the economic tide against many small and middle-sized farmers, it tanked the small towns in between the larger cities. Among many factors that caused economic lag in areas such as the Southern Tier of New York State, such as affordable health care, good education, and agricultural reform, broadband deployment – or the lack thereof – became the most prominent. And that was before the pandemic. After the pandemic, I need not go into depth. The challenge is now obvious. In the last year running for Congress I have even heard Republicans call for broadband deployment.
But let us remember how we got here just for the sake of going forward. It was Republican policies for the internet and the GOP paralysis of Congress. If we are going to achieve this unified goal of national broadband deployment, lip service is not enough. Tired Tea Party economics (“don’t do anything because it will create a tax”) will not lay a cable or erect a tower. We must move forward deliberately and with commitment. Over time in this blog I will offer commentary on more complicated issues such as reform of section 230 of the CDA and the anti-trust actions recently in play against internet giants. But let’s begin at the most essential point: it is time for a fully supported and ongoing program of national broadband deployment.