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Is broadband Internet access a public utility? - The LAMP

Is broadband Internet access a public utility?

By February 18, 2010 News 5 Comments
water faucet

Is not having broadband like not having water?

Broadband Internet access in this country is a problem, and as many of you probably know, the FCC is currently drafting a plan to change that. In findings released yesterday by the Department of Commerce, 40% of Americans do not have broadband access, and 38.9% of people who don’t have Internet access at home cite high costs as the reason. The federal government has taken on the task of increasing broadband access in part because it expects that increased access will improve the economy, as well as provide more opportunities for health care and education–all of which are cornerstones of the Obama Administration’s agenda for change. As I watch the development of the broadband debate, one question springs to mind: Has broadband access to the Internet become a public utility?

A public utility can be defined as “a business that furnishes an everyday necessity to the public at large.”  Gas, electricity and water are all considered public utilities, as is telephone service. In strictly legal terms, there is also a regulatory component in the public utility definition, but here I am concerned with the “everyday necessity” portion. One of my college professors spoke about a problem he was having with his neighbor, who wanted cable television. At the time, the only way the  neighbor could get cable service was by running a cable under my professor’s lawn (at least this is what he was told). When my professor arrived home to find his lawn in ruins, the neighbor claimed that cable television was a public utility, and so he had a right to dig up personal property in order to receive cable TV. My professor disagreed, took the neighbor to court for damaging private property, and the judge determined that cable was not an “everyday necessity.” Thus, the neighbor was denied what he believed was his right to HBO via my professor’s lawn.

I agree with the judge that cable television is not an every day necessity. It is a luxury. However, just as the Internet is a major source of information, so is cable television; the difference, I believe, is interactivity. A lack of cable TV does not make it more difficult for someone to search for a job or apply to school, and I would count both employment and education as necessities. You may be able to learn about general health-related issues on TV, but with so many health care plans and resources now being diverted almost exclusively online, it will soon be very difficult to manage your personal health needs.

I don’t recall an argument ever being made by the government that people not having cable is an issue for real concern, but this seems to be the case with the Internet. Equally important as having Internet access is learning media literacy; otherwise we’re in a world of trouble. One thing I frequently hear is that people already know how to use the Internet, so what can media literacy do for them? My response is usually something along the lines of, “They may know how to put the key in the ignition, but that doesn’t mean they should be on the road.” It’s easy for those of us living in a big city like New York to assume that everyone has access to the Internet, and everyone knows what they’re doing. After all, you can’t get on a subway here without seeing smartphones, mp3 players and handheld video games. But the truth is that not everyone has access, whether you’re talking about New York City or the entire United States, and this is a problem because the Internet is quickly becoming essential to daily life. It may have been ridiculous to say this ten years ago, but I do believe broadband Internet access is a public utility; as websites continue to get more sophisticated, low-speed access is less and less useful . My hope is that, together with building the infrastructure to strengthen this utility, adequate attention is paid to the media literacy education which must accompany this growth.

–Emily Long

  • Louis Romero

    I think a lot of issues can be solved by treating internet service as a utility. For example, if a watt is one joule/second I would define a Romero as one kilobit/second. Now any cable modem can measure Romeros and keep a tally of how many Romero hours I’ve used in a month. We know the cable companies can easily query out cable modems. So at this point it’s no big deal for them to query the device to determine how many KiloRomero Hours were used in a month and charge accordingly. Then they can even offer certain budget planning services for those whose KiloRomero Hour usages fluctuates throughout the year and offer flat rates to those who so choose based on their average KiloRomero Hour usage per month for the previous year. …Imagine that. Just like an electric company.

  • Louis Romero

    This way, those who use very little can pay very little and still have access to a valuable service. Those who use heavily will pay heavily and self police their usage. The internet service providers can make as much money as the bandwidth they can provide, and if I want faster bandwidth they will be happy to give it to me. If I want to throttle my own bandwidth (use a dimmer switch) I can do so. But now, the ISP is not compelled to throttle me, I am (if I wish to save money)

  • SG

    I wish it would be defined as a public utility for an entirely different reason. I’ve had internet service since 2008. Time Warner has come to my house 7 times starting this year since mid-Feb to “attempt” to fix our extremely intermittent internet connection. (Keep in mind I had zero issues until this year). Every time they come we are given a very vague 4 hour window where someone HAS to be home. They replaced the wire from the pole to the house, the wire that connects to that that comes in to the modem, replaced the modem, checked ALL the computer settings each time they came, checked the trap on the pole 2 times, etc. Only on the 6th trip did they notice that we have 2 prong wall outlets in the ENTIRE house. The technician then stated that the reason the connection was so intermittent is because we need 3 prong outlets to ground the modem. The modems that they give people have a power supply with a 2 prong plug. The coaxle cable that feeds the service is attached to a grounded pole! Legally they have to ground the pole when they install it. When I brought that up and said “How come you came to our house 5 times before this and never noticed our wall outlets if you’re claiming this is what the problem is?” He immediately got defensive and said “We’re not electricians! We could disconnect your service if we really wanted to since you don’t want to comply with what we’re telling you.” I said “I realize Time Warner is not a licensed electrical service. So I don’t expect you to *legally* be able to stand in MY driveway and *force* me to hire expensive electrical work done. If you want your service grounded, supply me with a connection that has a built-in 3 prong plug. That would have clued me in back in 2008 that maybe my wall outlet wasn’t compatible with your service if you had. Correct?” The 7th trip was so they could stand in our driveway again after doing nothing and tell us more of the same trash like trip 6. Even if they’re not considered a public utility, people still have the right to sue them for their stupidity. I have no idea how nobody’s brought a class action lawsuit against them for this type of trash yet. Seriously. I’m so glad I managed to see right through them; that I was not too “busy” to pay attention. That could have been costly in more ways than one. They need to get their act together and stop telling people something that they know NOTHING about. To top it all off, I complained higher up about it and someone was supposed to call me back. 5 days later they left a very non-confident sounding voice mail essentially looking to play phone tag and waiting games again. They’ve had 3 widespread outages every weekend for the last 3 weeks in my area. I asked them what caused the outages after they supposedly fixed them and they adamantly claimed they “Don’t know and don’t have that information.” BS!!!! Face it, they don’t want to admit they can’t keep it fixed, so they’re using the electrical outlet for an excuse hoping I wouldn’t catch them at. BE VERY VERY CAREFUL IF YOU HAVE TIME WARNER FOR SERVICE!!!!

  • SG

    P.S. I will be watching online news regarding Time Warner. If I ever see a class action suit filed due to the circumstances such as I have experienced I WILL be signing it. Absolutely.


    I realize…this is a VERY OLD post, however, the ‘net neutrality’ and ‘public utility’ debate with regards to ISPs is very relevant today (in 2017).

    Emily, you state: “A lack of cable TV does not make it more difficult for someone to search for a job or apply to school, and I would count both employment and education as necessities.”
    Sure, but doing so in the privacy in your home IS A LUXURY. You can go to your public library (or mooch off you employer)…FOR FREE! There is no ‘necessity’ to be able to accomplish these tasks 1) in your home, and 2) at high transfer rates (ie bandwidth required to pipe 4K video streams in order to search for a job or apply to school!)