As Time Warner and the other broadband monopolists craft schemes to begin imposing pricing plans for broadband which limit and meter our online use, it’s time to push for a meaningful public interest “universal service” digital age policy. A 21st Century democracy should provide a reasonable amount of free access to every citizen in their home (along with more plentiful free access in schools, libraries, and community sites). Today’s New York Times has an non-analytical article on the Time Warner broadband metering trial [“Putting a Meter on the Computer for Internet Use.” Reg may be required].
Under Michael Powell’s FCC, the Bush Administration gave a broadband monopoly to the phone and cable giants–ending the hope for any serious competition. By rewarding the old monopolists (cable TV & phone) with a new digital domain to lord over, the Powell FCC ensured that consumers and citizens would eventually have to confront threats to both affordable service and content diversity online [that’s the network neutrality part of the story]. The plan by Google and others to free up extra spectrum isn’t a complete answer either. More bandwidth governed by an advertising-centric business model will foreground some kinds of content over others–leaving, we believe, digital content that illuminates democratic expression a hostage to commercial forces.
That’s why everyone must be guaranteed some form of free basic bandwidth so they can access news, information, and even entertainment without fear of running afoul of a cut-off (or huge bill) by their local cable or phone ISP. What that free access amount should be needs to be debated; but it should be generous enough so individuals can consume mighty multi-media amounts of educational, civic, and political content.
It will be a true test for the groups working on communications policies–as well as the leaders of our major political parties–to see if they have the vision and courage to call for what is right. If they merely confine themselves to be a part of the safe and narrow dimensions of what are the usual U.S. media policy debates, they will fail to address one of the critical public interest issues of our time.