In a speech recently made by FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, he said that the Internet was “not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans.” That’s a rather startling statement from somebody who seemingly has the job of making sure that the country has adequate broadband to meet its needs. But if we look at his statements in context, it raises some important policy issues that are worth public discussion.
O’Rielly made the comment as a counterargument to the spreading concept that access to the Internet has become a necessity, perhaps even a right. It’s also widely expressed today that broadband is now a utility, much like electricity and water.
It’s an interesting discussion. Several surveys in the last few years show that a significant majority of households rank Internet access as the most important service purchased at their homes. I certainly know that my daughter and all of her 16-year old friends would ‘die’ without the Internet and it seems like the younger you are, the more the Internet is an important component of daily life.
But O’Rielly’s comment was really a political and policy statement. There are certainly a lot of implications for governments if the country adopts the idea that having Internet access is a right. For instance, that would put a lot more pressure to bring Internet access to the places that don’t yet have it and to work hard to close the gap in the quality of the Internet between urban and rural places.
But it seems to me that the FCC has largely already bought into the argument that the Internet is a necessity. They are pouring billions of dollars into improving rural broadband. They are going to subsidize broadband access to low income households. They have adopted net neutrality as a policy which, to some degree, protects the ability of consumers to get what they pay for from an ISP. These all seem like the actions of an agency who thinks that everybody ought to have access to broadband.
FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler responded to O’Rielly’s statement by saying that “broadband is the defining infrastructure of the 21st century. We should not and will not let up on our policies that make broadband more available.”
It’s obvious that Internet access is now a fundamental part of daily life for many people. I work from my home and I can’t imagine how I would function without it. Actually, I can imagine it, because after a hurricane and tornado hit me a few years ago I was without power and Internet access for 6 weeks. I basically regressed to what felt like the Stone Age. I essentially threw my hands up and gave up on work (and spent the time instead cleaning up the huge mess the storm left behind). I use the Internet almost continuously in making my living and as a society we have grown to a place where there is no realistic substitute for email and the ability to quickly exchange files and work products with others.
This is an issue that hundreds of municipalities are wrestling with. Communities look in envy at urban places that have great Internet bandwidth and they understand that if they don’t have adequate Internet in their community that they are liable to decline economically and fade away from relevance. Internet access is to cities today what the railroads were two centuries ago, and what electricity and Interstate highways were in the last century. Put into that context it starts feeling a lot like a necessity, at least at the community level.
I work with dozens of rural communities that have limited or no Internet access today. It’s heart-wrenching to hear people talk about trying to maintain a household of teenagers with only a cellular wireless plan or to hear parents lament that their kids can’t keep up in school without access to the Internet. For the vast majority of us who have Internet access it’s really hard to imagine going without.
I understand where Commissioner O’Rielly is coming from. He was formerly a Republican congressional aide and the Republicans feel generally that there are few ‘rights’ that the Federal government is obligated to recognize. But on this specific topic he might be on the wrong side of history, because my guess is that the vast majority of people in this country have grown to believe that having Internet access is a right and is something they cannot live without.