Establishing Internet as a Utility – This is Big!

internet-logos-1024x643Quito   In the midst of so much tragedy at the massacre of almost 50 LGBT men and women at a nightclub in Orlando and the horror and insensitivity of the Trump and Republican response, it was still possible to find a bright spot in the news: a federal court has backed policies establishing the internet as a utility.

It was not just any court either, it was the highly influential United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one of the most prestigious in the country. By a 2-1 vote on the panel, the judges in an 184-page decision came down solidly with the people rather than the industry by holding that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rightly can regulate the internet and assure net neutrality, because in fact the internet is not a luxury good, subject to special pricing and plundering by cable companies, but a utility, necessary for all the people.

This doesn’t close the door. There will likely be an appeal of course to the Supreme Court, but it opens many doors that might include more expansive rulings by the FCC that the internet is not only a utility, as a vital communication and consumer tool, but a public good that should be regulated accordingly and done so aggressively.

At one level this is something we all knew. Applying for jobs, getting through school, applying for many public benefits for the poor, keeping up with friends, and even the news of the nation, is increasingly impossible without the internet. The federal government’s investment in recent years to extend access to the internet to more rural areas and to public schools and libraries was evidence of this, even while being a subsidy for private carriers.

Interestingly, there are signs that the recognition of the public utility nature of the internet may be trickling down. On the one hand the FCC is talking about loosening the restraints that private internet providers have managed to lobby through many state legislatures to block municipalities from establishing their own systems to insure that all their citizens have affordable, high speed access. On the other, I got a press release the other day that the Ouachita rural electric cooperative in southern Arkansas of all places had partnered with an outfit so that it could extend internet services to 9000 families lacking access in the footprint of the cooperative. That would be a nice idea to catch on fire with other cooperatives that are sitting on money and unclear what to do with it other than pay their directors.

So, sure, we all hate utility companies and there have been thousands of campaigns to try and get them to be more accountable, provide better service, and affordable or lifeline rates, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned to hate even more than the local telephone, gas, or electric company, it’s the profiteering cable companies. With this decision we can hope their time in the sun and at the trough is finally coming to an end, so that all the people can access and afford the internet, because it’s a utility operating as a public good and necessity as well.

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