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.