How good is your Internet access and how much does it matter? How much does improving your Internet access matter for you at home, for your organization at work, and for the constituents and communities you work with? You may be thinking, I finally have broadband (high speed access) at home, at work, and at my kids’ schools, so yeah, there’s something there, but not the biggest issue. Trying to explain this lately, I have been looking at it as the overlap of three swirling issues—broadband speed and access, net neutrality, and digital divide.
This research confirms what most of us know: even if you have broadband where you need it, it’s likely far from perfect. According to the Berkman Center, we in the United States have slower and most costly Internet service than many other industrialized countries. And that’s not even looking at customer service issues. At the end of the twentieth century, the United States stood at the top of the heap on most measures of high speed Internet access and performance. It seemed easy to imagine that corporations in the United States would use that difference to their competitive advantage. Ten years later, we have slipped to the middle of the thirty countries (members of the OECD, http://www.oecd.org) the Berkman Center studied. Other studies put the US in the bottom third.
In the Berkman study, the US ranked 15th out of 30 in high speed access to the Internet. While US prices for lower speed access ranked only ninth, the US ranked 18th-19th for cost of higher speed access. The downward trend directly followed from –surprise, surprise-- Bush era FCC deregulation. In 2001 and 2002, the FCC decided that the Internet was about content and not telecommunications. The FCC regulates telecommunications (notably, phone service) and not information. These decisions effectively by-passed earlier Clinton-era legislation which had aimed to open up Internet access. And the results have been less competition and a steady slippage.
At the margins, we see in our own work that more costly and less reliable access to broadband does affect decision-making about software and new program initiatives. Not every time for sure, but enough to be a visible drag on strategic planning. Businesses and government agencies as well as nonprofits will tend to lag behind in adopting newer cloud-based web data systems to manage their work. Staff may even prefer really old software because they remain perky on slow connections; even if it means ten extra steps to cross reference different types of information or send simple follow up emails. It means that organizations will spend extra for duplicative back-up data repositories because they remain anxious that web access will slow or break down during critical program or organizing periods. And for both global corporations and small nonprofits, it may mean postponing or making more complex collaborative initiatives based on exchange of data and web services.
It has become a truism that the Internet has become as critical a part of the national and global infrastructure as traditional transportation and communication. Yet when President Obama recently announced new legislation for a $50 Billion public works project, the presumption is that it would provide jobs and improvements in those traditional areas. We have a ways to go before public works will mean public Internet works.
Net Neutrality and Organizational Strategy
Broadband access in turn overlaps with a second issue, net neutrality. Like broadband access, it’s worth understanding how net neutrality affects work and planning. Net neutrality means that the Internet works like a roadway, the post office or phone service. Anyone can use them for the same prices and contracts, and where they are regulated, the regulations apply fairly and evenly. OK, so postal regulations subsidize certain kinds of mailings, including by nonprofits on the one hand and glossy catalog mailers on the other. Yet, so far as I know, there is no way for LL Bean to get different delivery guarantees or rates from what Lands End gets. We all take for granted postal service neutrality.
When it comes to the Internet, many factors are at work at limiting net neutrality in the United States. After several decades of the Internet, we may be coming to a crossroads where the companies that provide the infrastructure for transmitting may no longer offer the same services and pricing to all publishers of information. The opposite of net neutrality would mean that Verizon, say, could charge Netflix a surcharge to deliver multimedia at faster rates than consumers download from the Apple store. Or that the consumer would pay more for access to services who haven’t partnered with their Internet provider. Sounds like chaos? You bet. Over the summer, Verizon and “Don’t be Evil” Google surprised a lot of people by floating just those sort of ideas. They then amended them to say, OK, net neutrality over everything wired (cable and phone lines) but allow companies to make whatever deals they want for delivering content over wireless connections.
Here too, we may be relieved to just know that compared to 10 years ago, we have access, and things tend to get through, so worry about more pressing issues. It matters or will matter in a lot of ways, even for small organizations. Heading toward a place where broadband access in the United States expands more through private corporate deals rather than general pressure or regulation will mean that the US will likely continue to fall behind the rest of the world in communications. That is, we don’t want eroding net neutrality to become the cable, DSL and wireless providers response to relative slippage in service.
More directly, if net neutrality goes, it is easy to imagine a transformation where MSNBC, Fox and CNN get to deliver multimedia content about news events at different speeds depending on the content of the message. Eroding net neutrality could mean that Verizon or Comcast could deliver email more slowing from labor organizations or advocacy groups fund-raising to constituencies or otherwise organizing against their policies. Much as I would love to see Fox News go away, it would definitely make me feel queasy if, say, Comcast decided to slow down their multi-media feeds because of political content.
Over time, allowing such discrimination could mean that organizations with less resources and more cutting edge messages would tend to be less likely to use multi-media in their work than corporations with the budgets to guarantee delivery of their content. The Internet as a communications equalizer for nonprofit and other independent public policy advocacy will erode. I am not saying these things will change like day and night. It is more the marginal trend that will affect careful budgeting of resources.
Net Neutrality, Broadband Access and the Digital Divide Today
Both these issues about the future of the Internet express one part of the challenge around a perhaps more familiar long term issue, which is the digital divide. Most of us instinctively consider the impact of the digital divide in planning technology issues. If we launch a new web site, will all our communities have access to it? Two resources: a solid, contemporary presentation of the digital divide today: http://www.internetforeveryone.org/. And here is where the revamped digital divide network list serv lives: http://forums.e-democracy.org/groups/inclusion
Digital Divide, when first identified as such twenty years ago, referred more to the high cost of computers than access to the Internet. It had immediacy between richer and poorer countries and regions globally. Computers, and the attendant infrastructure of reliable electricity, access to software and such still represent a daunting challenge in many parts of the world. Hardware has become less of a limiting factor. We have initiatives like One Laptop Per Child as well as the general cheapening of computers. We also have the growing prevalence of Internet-capable phones. And open source alternatives to proprietary desktop applications have reduced that barrier as well.
Emerging in its place is the sense that the digital divide overlaps with reliable, inexpensive access to Internet based services. For organizations planning their technology strategy, it has become more typical to ask if constituents have daily or regular access to email, the web, SMS text than if they have “a computer at home.” This too emphasizes the original point. We all have a significant stake in the debates over net neutrality and effective broadband policy, here in the United States and globally.