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John Cole, The Scranton Times-Tribune

Thinking Bigger than the Net Neutrality Debate

Internet Access Should Be Recognized as a Utility, not a Market


Network neutrality is in peril and that is a bad thing. But net neutrality is not really what those of us who care about democracy and a free marketplace of ideas should be fighting for. Each community needs to be fighting to wrest access to the internet out of the hands of the megacorporations who currently dominate it.

The net neutrality debate makes clear that it is past time to start treating internet like a utility rather than pretending internet service providers operate in some sort of fantastical free market. Most regions of the US are dominated by only one or two major internet service providers. A marketplace that only has one or two sellers is not a free market.

Unfortunately, Santa Barbara is among the roughly 50 percent of communities in the U.S. that only have one high speed broadband provider. On the hopeful side, here’s a map of all of the cities in the U.S. that are taking steps to reclaim their digital freedom of choice.

Everybody knows that monopolies are inherently bad for consumers and that if one profit maximizing company is allowed to have unregulated control over access to something vital, bad things happen. That is why we have public utilities for gas, water, and electricity. But -weirdly - from a regulatory perspective, internet access is still treated more like as a commodity than a utility. We pretend as if consumers can shop around for the best price and service among alternative providers. It simply is not so.

Competition is good for consumers, but risky for the competitors. Since it is very expensive to lay new internet cable, few markets boast sufficiently lucrative populations to justify private companies competing against each other. This is what economists call a natural monopoly, and it is precisely the situation consumers face in Santa Barbara.

So how do we ensure that every Santa Barbaran has access to an internet experience that is affordable and reliable? We do it ourselves. We, The People, reclaim our power by starting a public utility of our own that is charged with providing high quality internet access to the public.

Public utilities are structured in many different ways and boast diverse business models. I don’t pretend to know precisely which model will prove best for our unique community but I am convinced that allocating $100k to study that question would be the best investment that our city council could make toward a prosperous future.

Regardless of whether this FCC succeeds in ending net neutrality, the real battle ahead is for communities like ours to redefine free and open internet as a basic need and to take action accordingly.

The net neutrality debate makes clear that it is past time to start treating internet like a utility rather than pretending that monopolistic internet service providers operate in some sort of fantastical free market.

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