The FCC has officially classified the Internet as a telecommunications utility, a major step toward ensuring net neutrality. The whole concept of net neutrality — or rules preventing service providers from developing a ‘fast lane’ of higher data speeds (presumably available to sites with the budget to buy-in) — has, on the surface at least, been a classic example of right versus left.
The party lines have been drawn around this issue for months.
In November, Senator Ted Cruz decried net neutrality rules — devised by the FCC and strongly supported by President Obama — as “Obamacare for the Internet.” He explained how the revolutionary power of the Internet, and all its affiliated apps, networks, and commercial platforms, owe their development to the lack of government regulation online.
Meanwhile, President Obama called on the FCC (technically an independent body, so he could not order the action) to develop “the strongest possible rules” in order to protect net neutrality from Internet service providers and their efforts to throttle online traffic speeds.
So net neutrality, by Republican estimates, is the greatest modern threat to a free and open Internet, and all the innovation that comes with it. On the liberal side, net neutrality is the last best defense against corporate strangling of the free and open Internet the public has come to expect and rely on. So how did they both manage to be right?
The answer lies in the details of the FCC reclassification. By recognizing the Internet as a telecommunications utility, it falls under the 1934 Communications Act, which was written in response to the rise of telephones as an interrupting technology after the turn of the 20th century.
The Communications Act didn’t federalize phone service — not exactly, anyway. What it did do was put the public to work by employing displaced workers (part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal) to erect the massive national infrastructure that allowed private phone companies to provide service. The FCC’s founding rule guaranteed phone lines in virtually every home in America by building and maintaining the necessary infrastructure, and encouraging competition among various private service providers.
Clearly, the federal government was deeply involved in how, where, and when telephone service became available, and how that infrastructure was maintained. Yet the service itself — the part that makes telephones more than a fancy paperweight — remained in the private sector, with local, regional, and even national brands engaged in providing telephone service.
The reclassification of the Internet as a utility actually makes it look more like a public-private partnership than a government takeover.
The FCC is not taking over Internet services; it is setting itself up to take greater responsibility for expanding, protecting, and integrating Internet infrastructure.
The Internet has a capacity limit directly tied to infrastructure. Phones don’t slow down or turn glitchy if you have too much to say; the Internet does, if too many people are streaming videos on Netflix or coordinating a massive online Xbox tournament. There is more higher quality (meaning more data-rich) content traveling the Internet every day. Fiber optic cables and higher capacity networks, on the other hand, struggle to keep up with the generation and demand for content.
And the demand for content and access is not merely a matter of public entertainment. Globally, Internet access is fast becoming the best tool for health and hygiene-related behavior change. The state of HIV and AIDS owes a lot to the sort of information campaigns that were bolstered by Internet access. Preventing and coordinating a complex international response to disease outbreaks relies heavily on Internet access and infrastructure.
Academic models, too, are going digital, virtual, and online. Public and private institutions have slowly begun to recognize the viability of online models. From the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by leading research universities like Harvard and MIT, to the full-scale advanced degree programs cropping up at institutions like Ohio University, the internet is promising to do for education what it already did for retail.
The perpetual struggle for schools to survive funding cuts and resource shortages stands to be transformed by online learning — but only if Internet access doesn’t cost extra for the necessary speeds of such systems. Just as with telephones in rural communities, the infrastructure needed to make the Internet as powerful and revolutionary as possible requires a massive public-private collaboration.
If history provides any indications, federal support of Internet infrastructure would do a great deal to improve and secure access, and allow private companies to continue to generate wealth by providing service. While the classification will not immediately invent new competition, it could provide a step in that direction.
That is, after all, part of the FCC’s charter, and runs counter to the top-down, government-managed model feared by so many.
In the end, this is not a big win for either party, except in their vanity speeches; it is merely one step toward repeating America’s historical success in bringing a powerful new tool to everyone, and letting them sort out how best to use it.