Internet service providers fight public access plans

The internet has grown like kudzu, and now its vines are deeply entangled in the day-to-day life of most Americans. Now, in the midst of a severe recession, some cities have decided to build out their own free broadband systems to better serve their citizens and drive innovation. As you might expect, internet service providers such as Time Warner Cable (TWC), feeling the squeeze on their pocketbooks, are fighting this move. And they are fighting in the traditional American way: they're taking the cities to court.

The battle is raging at the moment in North Carolina, where several towns have created public high-speed broadband networks. According to industry expert Craig Settles, as quoted by Online Media Daily, towns such as Wilson, N.C., have seen a surge in home-based businesses due in part to the internet access, and a Louisiana town was able to draw 600 new jobs thanks to its public fiber-optic network.

The ISPs and communications trade associations are lobbying for a bill (pdf) currently under consideration in the North Carolina House of Representatives that would impose restrictions on public funding of broadband access, including prohibiting towns from using any of the billions of dollars of federal stimulus money that has been targeted for developing the nation's broadband access. The ISPs argue that such public networks undercut their ability to build and sell internet access.

The Telecommunications Industry Association recently pointed out several developing areas in which broadband will play an essential role (pdf): telemedicine and networked medical records, teleworking, e-government, small business support, public safety, national security, improved transportation, aid for the disabled, and help for rural areas. Its view is that the government should support the private ISPs as they expand their subscription-based services, and should focus its attention on helping the people get computers with which to access the internet.

Looking at this list, though, I have to wonder if internet access shouldn't be considered, like traffic control, police, fire protection, and the like, an essential service that should be provided to all residents of the U.S. by the government and funded by tax dollars. The actual connectivity could be offered directly, by publicly-built networks, or through the ISPs by subsidizing access. Left to the market, I fear all too many people living in areas where profits are hard to come by will be denied what has become an essential service.

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