Aguilera & West: Broadband for All Should Be Priority No. 1 in Net Neutrality Debate

Posted January 21, 2010 at 10:09am

Worrying about net neutrality when substantial numbers of Americans don’t yet have broadband service is like telling a starving man to eat organic. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it seems beside the point. When it comes to Internet policy, we need to put first things first, which means making sure that every American has the opportunity to enjoy affordable broadband service. Thus, worrying about net regulation issues that may actually undermine the goal of universal access seems not only premature, but also a bit irrelevant. [IMGCAP(1)]Increasingly, if you want to communicate with your government, get service from a business, reach out to a teacher about your child, apply for a job or tell your Congressman what you think, the best way to do it is online. For those who are connected, broadband is an unprecedented source of empowerment that opens the door to better education, better jobs and better health care. Almost every television and radio commercial and nearly every political pitch these days seems to end with an Internet address. Those who aren’t connected are getting the sense that they are being left behind — again.That is why Congress wisely identified affordable broadband for every American as a key goal of last year’s economic stimulus measure and directed the Federal Communications Commission to design a strategy for achieving it. So we are cautiously excited by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s pledge that the upcoming plan, due out in March, will be bold and proactive.Our caution stems from some very real concerns. We believe that the FCC’s ongoing net neutrality initiative may get in the way of our broadband goal. For example, possible restrictions on network providers’ ability to offer customized services to content providers, such as multiplayer games, video providers or search engines like Google and Bing, will also limit their ability to invest funds in enhanced network infrastructure. The FCC’s broadband task force has estimated that it would cost up to $350 billion to deliver fiber-based broadband to every American home. Even a less robust network would require tens or hundreds of billions in new funding. If new network regulation limits business options for Internet service providers, the funding needed to build networks may have to come from higher consumer prices — a troubling prospect for minorities, low-income Americans, people with disabilities, the multilingual and rural Americans who are currently on the wrong side of the digital divide.Hard data on some of these groups is difficult to come by, a problem in and of itself. We know, for instance, that African-Americans and individuals with low incomes are far less likely to enjoy high-speed Internet service than white Americans or those with higher incomes. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reports that just 46 percent of African-Americans have broadband service at home (compared with 65 percent of white Americans). The income gaps are larger still — 88 percent of those with $100,000 incomes have broadband compared with 35 percent of those earning less than $20,000 a year. Though the data is sparse, firsthand experience tells us that Native Americans, citizens with disabilities and Latinos who speak Spanish as their first language also run well behind in broadband access and adoption.As a guide to policy, we need to know why some groups of Americans are underrepresented in the broadband world and how net neutrality rules would affect their chances of getting online. We agree with the concept of an open Internet where each individual, not government or private companies, decides what Web sites we can visit and what online services we can use. But our top priority is broadband for every citizen. That is why the Hispanic Institute and the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, along with 21 other groups, signed a letter last October, asking the FCC for a careful study of the effect of net neutrality on unserved and underserved Americans. To our disappointment, no such analysis has taken place. That is why we our renewing our call.Before going forward with network regulation, the FCC should study the implications for America’s larger broadband goals and the digital divide. Before making new policy, we must take off the blinders and determine whether new rules might delay broadband even longer for the have-nots. Like organic food, net neutrality may have important virtues. But just as we need to feed the hungry before we redesign their diet, we should first deliver broadband before imposing new government controls with unknown consequences.Sylvia Aguilera is executive director of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership, a coalition of 20 national and regional U.S. Hispanic organizations that works to increase awareness of the effect of technology and telecommunications policy on the U.S. Hispanic community. Gus West is chairman of the Hispanic Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective educational forum for an informed and empowered Hispanic America.