For sure, broadband technology is the ticket to economic and personal advancement in the new millennium; it’s creating jobs, helping to raise student test scores, delivering health care to underserved populations, reducing carbon footprints and providing a gateway to news and entertainment.
But for Latinos – the fastest growing demographic in the United States – this digital revolution is dampened by the lack of its adoption. Just 37 percent of Spanish-dominant Latinos actually subscribe to broadband at home.
The Federal Communications Commission has spent the last year studying these issues and in March delivered a National Broadband Plan to Congress. In addition, some are urging the FCC to not only focus on increasing universal broadband adoption but to also revisit the “open Internet” rules that former FCC Chairman Michael Powell conceived in 2004 and which the FCC formally adopted in 2005.
These standards are intended to ensure that consumers can visit any legal Web site and use any legal online application such as YouTube. For the most part, broadband providers (the phone, cable and wireless Internet Service Providers or ISPs) have honored the policy. In fact, there are few instances today that critics can point to where ISPs have blocked or hindered a consumer from visiting a legal Web site or using an application and the Open Internet rules have always prevailed whenever there was an alleged transgression.
But, in deciding whether to supplement these open Internet rules with yet another layer of “net neutrality” rules, the FCC should use caution. For sure, net neutrality standards should protect against broadband providers engaging in anticompetitive behavior by blocking or inhibiting access to competing Web sites or content. But beyond that, online applications companies should not be able to exploit these rules for their own parochial benefit and, in particular, should not be able to use net neutrality rules to shift the costs onto consumers for building broadband networks.
The rapid rise in online video is doubling bandwidth consumption every two years and the FCC estimates that even if we could “build our way out” of the problem it would cost $350 billion.
Broadband providers have two places to turn to help finance these costs: the Internet companies that make billions in revenue with applications that use and benefit from all the bandwidth or consumers already struggling to make ends meet in a down economy.
Some net neutrality advocates are arguing that the FCC should adopt rules that would insulate Internet applications companies from having to bear any of the burden of these costs. The result would mean a de facto regressive “broadband tax” on consumers. That would hit non-adopters in the Latino community and elsewhere particularly hard, as considerable data show that such cost-shifting onto consumers would deter adoption.
Net neutrality rules should prevent broadband providers from engaging in anticompetitive behavior but they should not be commandeered to insulate wealthy Internet applications companies from paying their fair share of the broadband bill. Any new rules must protect consumers both by ensuring their unfettered access while shielding them from having to shoulder all of the costs for faster broadband networks that our nation so badly needs. Such an approach will not please the special interests but it will be a double win for consumers.
Brent A. Wilkes is the national executive director for the League of United Latin American Citizens. He can be contacted at email@example.com.