Now that schoolwork, job applications, college applications and virtually every other element of modern life takes place online, the Internet is an absolute necessity and a human right. However, it’s currently treated much more like a luxury than a necessity. Americans pay more than the rest of the developed world for slower service because our government has failed to recognize Internet access as a right rather than a privilege.
Ask any free market advocate about government intervention in the economy and you’ll always get the same answer: the free market creates competition; the government creates waste. They’re so certain of this cornerstone of their faith that none of them seem to have checked the real world to see if it’s true.
It’s not. U.S. telecom companies have divided up the service map so completely that 90.2 percent of Americans have a choice between a maximum of two service providers for low-speed Internet, and 74.7 percent have one or zero options for broadband fast enough for a family to use together. Deregulation has allowed the massive telecom companies that own the physical networks to stifle competition and drive up their rates at our expense. For middle and low-income Americans, higher rates eat into budgets for food, education and healthcare, or shut them out of Internet access entirely.
None of this would be a problem if Internet access was a commodity or a luxury like any other. No one complains about gaps in the diamond market because it’s not important for everyone to own diamonds, but Internet access is necessary for modern life and should be treated as such. In France, where Internet access is recognized as a human right, broadband is two to three times cheaper than U.S. rates for the same speed. Rather than allow telecom companies to own their own network and shut others out, the French government forces Internet service providers (ISPs) compete on the same networks, driving prices down.
Many cities are already taking steps to improve competition, building their own fiber networks and allowing ISPs to compete on them. Municipal networks break the monopoly power of ISPs and allow genuine competition to drive the price of service down. The city of Bozeman has already taken a step in this direction by creating “Bozeman Fiber,” a fiber-optic network which will begin serving residential areas in the next few years. This network will take customers from one or two potential service providers to as many as ten, creating competition and driving down prices.
Internet access is so integral to modern life that federal, state and local governments should ensure that Internet access is as universally available as other necessities. Food, housing and heating are recognized (by most people) as necessities and human rights. So, the government steps in to fill any gaps left in the market by providing food stamps, housing vouchers and heating assistance. Internet access should be recognized alongside other necessities and governments should ensure that no one falls through the gaps left by the market.