Making Telecom Central Again: Our Economic Future Depends on High-Speed Internet For All

Sep 20, 2012Susan Crawford

Expanding high-speeding Internet access to all Americans is as essential now as the Rural Electrification Act was in the 1930s.

The basic facts are familiar: of a nation of 314 million Americans, 100 million of us lack high-speed access to the Internet. We're behind 15 other countries when it comes to that high-speed access; none of top city hubs for fast, affordable access are in the United States. Speeds are slow, prices are high, and a third of us are being left behind. Most people who make less than $20,000 a year don't have access; everyone who makes more than $75,000 a year does. Almost every part of life today, and every policy area you care about, depends on a reliable, affordable, high-speed connection. For everything from finding a job to accessing online classrooms, those without access are at a distinct disadvantage. And our country as a whole is at a disadvantage, as new developments that require working collaboratively with massive amounts of data will happen elsewhere.

Why did this happen, and why do I care?

It happened because of policy. We're being squeezed by a deregulated and enormously powerful industry that has no incentive to build a fast, affordable, level digital playing field for Americans.

This narrative is really just like the electricity story. In 1920 in America, unregulated private companies controlled electricity. The result? 90 percent of farmers didn't have it, at the same time that all rich people in New York City did. And it was wildly expensive in many places. Although it's now considered an essential input into everything we do, at the time electricity was seen as a luxury; the companies served the rich and big businesses, and left everyone else out. The electricity business, after all, involved very high up-front costs. If you could make that initial investment, it served as an extraordinarily effective barrier to entry -- who needed two electrical lines? -- and you could pick off the rich customers, making life difficult for any second comer, because they'd be stuck with serving people who were more spread out and not as wealthy. Then, once your lucrative business was in place, you could raise prices with impunity. You didn't have to expand. You could just harvest.

We did something about that problem at both the local and national level. It took tremendous leadership by Franklin Roosevelt, who went to swim in Warm Springs, Georgia and was horrified by the expense of the scarce electrification there. Although a rich and privileged man, he instinctively understood that the success of the entire nation depended on having a large marketplace for electricity -- both for people to thrive and for American industry to sell new goods to. And so he mounted enormous rural electrification efforts in the 1930s and regulated these companies, making sure that they received a fair profit for a world-class and universally provided service.

Today, the U.S. is falling far behind when it comes to the 21st century version of electrification: the country's upgrade to fiber connectivity, the global standard. Although our U.S. telephone system was the envy of the world when it was built, and served every American at a reasonable price, we're apparently unable to think of fiber as a utility. We've seen enormous consolidation and monopolization of both wired and wireless access in America by the companies to which we've entrusted our daily lives of information. This isn't good for any part of American society, and it is, or should be, a truly bipartisan issue.

It's also, like electricity, both a local and a national issue. There are bright spots across the country where communities are coming together to commission fast, cheap fiber networks. We need to make it possible for every community to make that choice. That will require federal legislation to block state laws that lock up localities and keep them in the incumbents' hands. We need to make sure that there are rules in place to protect competition and allow for oversight at the federal level as well.

Finally, it's an urgent issue. Right now, a tsunami of state-level deregulation is sweeping the country. Right now, Verizon is telling the D.C. Circuit that it is a First Amendment "speaker" and that therefore any regulation of its activities is unconstitutional. Right now, the regional cable monopolies are buying up former competing telecom companies, strengthening their grip on wired access across the country.

I care because I think we face a choice between two fundamentally different visions of the future. Today's free marketers seem to be content with a second-class network that only rich people can afford. They're pushing for even fewer regulations on the giant telecommunications companies who have the power to control everything we learn and create. Think about that: they want to give the richest and most powerful companies in our country even more riches and more power to serve as gatekeepers over everything we do. To harvest us. And at the same time, they want to make sure that basic high-speed infrastructure isn't a priority for the country. Their vision is simple: "Communicating is a luxury for the rich." I don't think that's right, and most of our peer nations don't either.

I'm thrilled to be invited to be a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. One of the high points of this year for me was meeting members of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network at their summit at Hyde Park. They are so smart, so focused, and so energetic. This generation understands how essential fast online access is, and how important it is for local communities to protect their ability to communicate at a reasonable cost. What's unique about Roosevelt is that it operates on both a local, decentralized level and on the national level -- just like the Internet itself. I'm looking forward to taking on this issue with the Roosevelt team. 

Susan Crawford is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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