Universal Internet Access: Not As Simple As It AppearsUniversal Internet Access: Not As Simple As It Appears
Internet advocates have been saying for years that America needs policies to ensure "universal access," but that's a more complicated goal than just saying "everybody should have access to the Internet." A former Obama advisor says government needs to determine what levels of access should be universal-how fast is fast enough? And another part of universal access is making sure the Internet doesn't fragment into multiple, mutually incompatible networks.
July 2, 2009
Internet advocates have been saying for years that America needs policies to ensure "universal access," but that's a more complicated goal than just saying "everybody should have access to the Internet." A former Obama advisor says government needs to determine what levels of access should be universal-how fast is fast enough? And another part of universal access is making sure the Internet doesn't fragment into multiple, mutually incompatible networks.Kevin Werbach, an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School, said the U.S. needs to set a "baseline" and "ceiling" for universal Internet access. The baseline would be a basic level that everyone would have access to, while the ceiling would be faster, better, access that would be commonplace but not universal.
"Broadband is a fundamental element of citizenship in the 21st Century," said Werbach, who advised the Obama transition team, which consulted on policy issues for the then-President-Elect during the period after Election Day but before the Inauguration. Werbach worked for the transition team on FCC policy issues. The Internet today is the channel for delivery of information on government services, news, education, and healthcare, Werbach said, speaking recently at Metanomics, a weekly live interview program in Second Life sponsored by Cornell University. Watch the video of the whole interview. In addition to figuring out basic, universal service, the U.S. needs to figure out what levels of service should be made commonplace but not quite universal. "The 'ceiling' is getting to a high level of service that's widespread, with the acknowledgement it won't be everywhere," Werbach said. For example, in Japan, everyone in Tokyo has access to fiber connections running 50-100 megabits per second. In the U.S., broadband in the cities mostly runs no faster than 1 or 2 megabits per second. Werbach's apperance June 24 was a continuation of an interview begun earlier in the month, which was cut short due to technical problems. The June 24 presentation had technical problems too, but not so severe that they prevented Werbach from speaking. Universal Internet service is an extension of policies that the U.S. has had in pace for years governing home phone service. "Today, people think about how that might apply to Internet connectivity and broadband, that access to the global information network is important the same way as the phone was 30-100 years ago," Werbach. The current system for universal phone service needs overhaul. It's outmoded, broken, it doesn't help provide universal phone service and doesn't get universal broadband service either, Werbach said. Universal service means more than just universal broadband, Werbach said. "When you unpack universal service, it means ubiquity-everyone should have access. A further direction is that everyone should have access to the same network," he said. "We take it for granted that everyone has access to the same Internet, but it doesn't have to be that way. I worry about the Internet splitting up," he said. Werbach spoke about that threat at his earlier Metanomics session, describing how the Internet is running out of addresses under the existing Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4). IPv6 solves that problem, but hasn't been implemented in a standardized fashion; China, which comprises a huge part of the Internet, is implementing its own version of IPv6. Copyright law is another, potential threat to the "unitary Internet." Search engines like Google function by making local copies of the pages they index, which could be interpreted as flagrant copyright violation, but which is tolerated because of the benefits of search. "How is it that Google can take the content of the Web and stick it in its search index? The legal answer is really not all that clear," he said. If site owners prove willing and able to pursue aggressive copyright claims against Google, search would break, making the Internet seem less unitary. "Given how aggressively some people are pursuing copyright law, I am concerned that the kind of permissiveness that makes content shared online possible would break down," Werbach said. "If you need a license for everything on the Web, even for search, it wouldn't work that well." Werbach said the U.S. does not currently have policy for regulating the Internet, or for encouraging broadband penetration. Broadband is a yardstick for measuring competitiveness among nations, and the U.S. isn't faring well. The U.S. led teh growth of the Internet in the 1990s, during the dialup era, but is lagging currently. The Bush Administration was largely "apathetic" about the Internet and broadband, without high-level staff focused on these issues, Werbach said. "They seemed to think this was something they could let go and it would happen," he said. The FCC should regulate the Internet, but it requires a "dramatic overhaul" to allow the "hardworking and talented" people who work there the leeway to do their jobs. Werbach said the U.S. Senate should act quickly to confirm Obama nominee Julius Genachowski as chairman of the FCC; since he spoke, the Senate has done just that.
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