Monday, November 29, 2004

Internet Access Is A Public Trust

Before I get any further into this post, let me throw my hand on the table: internet access is essential communication that is becoming ever more integral to daily life, not only in the US, but around the world. In some of the most remote areas of the planet people have come to depend on such access to free them from the experiential prisons that trapped their parents and grandparents, and have kept them captive and hopeless under tyrannical regimes. Through internet access kids in Iran grew up hungry to know Western culture and freedoms, families in China can gauge the progress of economic development in their own backyards, and the world shrinks to the size of big city.

The concept of public utility regulation arose from the recognition that certain services---water, electricity, communication, broadcasting---were so essential to the public health and safety that the government (that is, the people) had a compelling interest in ensuring that they were made available and at reasonable cost to everyone, and that the public interest was served by them. But in the current free-for-all-market, much of this philosophy has been discarded or neutered. When faced with a choice between guarding public rights and letting loose the dogs of commerce, our current leaders never met a corporation they could say "no" to. See, for instance, the F"Fairness Doctrine? We don't need no stinkin' Fairness Doctrine!"CC.

In an effort to counter the lack of broadband internet access for underserved groups, and to try to make itself competitive and attractive to business, Philadelphia has been looking into ways to offer Wi-Fi across the city at low rates (between $15-25 mo.), starting next June. Already you can hook up at the Terminal Market or the Borders at Broad St, and access is spreading.

But now in Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell is faced with a decision: whether or not to sign into law a bill which has been flogged persistently by that crusader for consumers' rights, Verizon. House Bill 30 was passed by both legislative houses, and would prevent governments from providing broadband for a fee to their communities. Verizon has dragged its feet for years in supplying broadband to rural areas and in cooperating with other companies, most notably DSL carriers like now-defunct Phoenix, which it helped kill. Now, faced with the competition of a non-profit (local government), Verizon's tack is to simply eliminate it, as well.

I honestly don't know what Rendell intends to do now. But whatever decision he makes will determine the direction PA goes in the next decade: either into a future inclusive of everyone whether rural or urban, rich or poor, or a future of business as usual for the plutocracy.

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