Broadband as a legal right (part 1)

National bird of Finland

Universality was one of the core consumer-protection principles that developed alongside monopoly telephone service. The dilemma facing policymakers now is when and how broadband should be classified as an entitlement or lifeline service.

This debate is being pushed along by the disappearance of wireline voice service from North American homes. The latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that by the end of 2009, one in four American homes had wireless phone service only. In addition, nearly 15% of homes were designated in the NCHS survey as “wireless mostly.” Although these homes have a landline, all or almost all calls are received on a wireless phone. These numbers mean that almost 40% of US homes have effectively cut the POTS cord.

On the flip side, high-speed access is a long way from universal in either Canada or the US. My guesstimate is that today about 3/4 of North American households have fixed broadband access (there are measurement issues here, such as the threshold bandwidth for defining “broadband”). Broadband can’t be the new lifeline if a large chunk of the population can’t get it, can’t afford it or doesn’t understand its benefits.

So how do we get there? We’ve already had a taste of what the incumbent North American ISPs are capable of when regulators try to enlist their help in making broadband universal. Fuhgeddaboudit!

The Americans are embroiled in their epic battle over Title II reclassification. How embroiled? A June 29 editorial in The New York Times paints a scary picture of “the intensity with which phone and cable companies dislike the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to extend its regulatory oversight over access to broadband Internet.” In the first quarter of this year alone, US telephone and cable companies spent $20.6 million lobbying the government – lobbying carried out in part by 276 former government officials. I don’t have any comparable information for Canada, but I can’t imagine our incumbents need to spend that kind of money in Ottawa, as Cabinet and the CRTC continue to sacrifice consumer interests on the altar of market forces.

Finland: just do it

Finland is skipping all the lobbying and litigation, in favor of jump-starting universal broadband:

“Universal service means services considered as staple commodities, and which every consumer and company must have access to. The content of universal services with regard to internet access services is laid down in the Communications Market Act. Broadband is a part of the universal service as of 1 July 2010.”

Thus, as of July 1, all Finns are legally entitled to broadband service in both their primary residence and their businesses, by being “included in basic communications services like telephone or postal services,” as the press release says. Although the initial minimum downlink is a modest 1 Mbit/s, the government intends to boost that to 100 Mbit/s by 2015.