Feature Story

The Broadband Debate

by Laurence Cruz

Many believe broadband service should be a basic right. Country by country issues vary, but how can access be achieved?

Few would argue that having access to the Internet can make life easier and more enjoyable, but a growing number of countries are making broadband a legal and human right.

It was Estonia, of all places, that started the trend. In 2000, nine years after the tiny Baltic state achieved independence from the Soviet Union, its parliament passed a law that declared Internet access a fundamental human right of its citizenry. Since then, a number of other countries have followed suit—Greece, France, Finland, Spain, Costa Rica and Panama, to name a few. Experts expect the number to grow.

"People are realizing the value of broadband Internet not as a technology per se, but much more as a tool for openness, creativity and expression," says Soumitra Dutta, an author and professor of business and technology with INSEAD, an international graduate business school and research institution.

Disqus: Do you think all countries will make broadband access a basic right?

The benefits of broadband are well documented. According to a 2010 report by the Broadband Commission for Digital Development, broadband can help generate jobs, growth, productivity and long-term economic competitiveness. It also has the power "to cut a swath through the silos associated with the health, education, culture, energy, transport, environment and other sectors," the report states.

Broadband adoption is endorsed at the highest levels. The United Nations has proposed that Internet access should be a human right. And the above-mentioned report calls on all governments to move broadband to the top of their agendas: "In the 21st century, broadband networks must be regarded as vital national infrastructure—similar to transport, energy and water networks, but with an impact that is even more powerful and far-reaching." (The Broadband Commission is a joint project of UNESCO and the International Telecommunications Union—a specialized agency of the United Nations for information and communications technologies, or ICT.)

Access, Skills and Content

In making the case for broadband as a human right, many advocates invoke the analogy of universal service in the telephony or postal sectors. But while enshrining the right to broadband access in a country's Constitution may be an important step, it carries little weight on its own, Dutta says.

"Many countries have health and education in their Constitution, but that doesn't mean they have 100 percent good healthcare or education for everyone," he says.

Dutta says the real challenge lies in implementing such a right—which, in turn, he says requires not just access, but also skills and content. Access includes not just a wired or wireless connection and a computing device, but also an appropriate telecom regulatory regime to ensure that prices are reasonable and that service providers have incentives to invest in deploying broadband, Dutta says. And access without skills and content is not enough, he says.

"There's no point having a computer sitting on a desk somewhere in the neighborhood if you can't actually use it," Dutta says. "And if you don't have relevant content in the local language you will not necessarily have a very good impact, especially in non-English speaking countries."

Unintended Consequences

Not everyone is so ready to jump aboard this particular broadband bandwagon. "I don't think there is any such thing as a human right to free, unlimited broadband service," says Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, a market-oriented academic research institution at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. "The entitlement or rights mentality in America today is completely out of control."

Thierer says he's a firm believer in such fundamental human rights as freedom of speech, expression, movement and association—so-called "negative rights" that don't require any assertion of government authority or demand payment from anybody. But he says any proposed right to broadband access is a different animal altogether—one likely to come at taxpayers' expense and to have all manner of unintended consequences, from squelching competition to providing a poor level of service.

Thierer says the universal telephone service provided in America in the early 20th century by the original AT&T should serve as a cautionary tale against governments stepping in to provide universal broadband. He says the government-sanctioned Bell System monopoly provided mediocre telephone service to 93 percent of the U.S. population at best—whereas TV and radio hit 98 percent and 99 percent respectively, even though neither was subsidized or regulated. And what of the Bell System's cheap prices? "We have no idea if it could have been much cheaper because competition was not allowed to develop," Thierer says.

Information as a Basic Right

Others argue that if the United States depends on private telecom carriers to deliver broadband to all, it risks falling further behind countries like Korea, Finland and Australia—all of which have large government broadband initiatives underway.

Suvi Lindén, the government minister who in 2009 spearheaded Finland's broadband-as-a-legal-right initiative, says she uses the term broadband as a human right mainly in connection with developing countries. In Africa, for example, where wireless services are making it possible for many citizens to leapfrog wired services altogether, owning a mobile phone is a lifeline of sorts. People can do online banking, farmers can get weather forecasts, and many who would never get much of an education via traditional avenues can access a world of educational opportunities via the Internet, Lindén says.

"In a way, one does not have full citizenship rights without having a digital identity," says Lindén, who is Finland's minister of communications and an ITU special envoy for the Broadband Commission for Digital Development. "At the United Nations, we've regarded this access to information as a human right because information is the basis for development."

As for funding universal broadband initiatives, the options are many. At least one American CIO has suggested a long-term strategy where thefederal government rolls out fiber to every home as a universal service while private carriers manage the network and sell their services on top of it. Dutta says public-private partnerships are the way to go, adding that some nations are creating "universal technology funds" for the purpose with the help of technology players. Thierer says the government's role should be restricted to providing a welfare-like voucher system like the federal food stamp program—call them "broadband vouchers."

Whatever the method of implementation, the broadband-as-a-human-right genie appears to be out of the bottle. In most cases, it's just a matter of time before countries figure out how to fully deploy it.

"Some countries will provide it very soon—after one year, some in the next five years, some may never do it," Dutta says. "It's going to happen in an uneven manner."

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