On June 4, I gave a speech at Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) on Broadband Access As Public Utility (the official Title was The Internet As Public Utility, but my original title and my conception still is about broadband access specifically because “the Internet” has become a very vague term). For those unfamiliar with PDF, it is a truly awesome conference organized by Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej that brings together folks from all over the tech world to discuss how tech can make a better world and be an expression of our values. This year’s focus was on how tech can facilitate civic engagement. This year was my first time to PDF, but I am definitely going to do my damndest to come back next year.
I’m pleased to say my speech was well received. I’ve included the video below. (You can find videos of the other speakers in the PDF15 Archive.) My speech turned out to be about 15 minutes long, which means it was 3 minutes over. Even so, there are some significant differences between what I wrote in advance and as actually delivered (which happens to me often), which is why I reprint my original “as prepared” remarks below the fold.
A few basic points I want to make as take aways. As I keep stressing, the term “utility” and “public utility” does not imply any particular mode of regulation or requirement for natural monopoly or market power. The term goes back to the concept first elaborated in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations on the purpose of government, including: “the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions, which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit would never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.” The Federalist Papers further expands on this idea, justifying the Constitution as necessary to create a government sufficiently “vigorous” to meet the needs of the people.
The innovation of the post-Civil War era was to identify services which, although provided in many cases by the private sector, were too important and too central to society to be left wholly to the dictates of the market and private companies. It is in this sense that Franklin Delano Roosevelt meant “utility” in his letter to Congress calling on creation of the Federal Communications Commission, which begins: “I have long felt that for the sake of clarity and effectiveness the relationship of the Federal Government to certain services known as utilities should be divided into three fields: Transportation, power, and communications.” To use the older statutory language, these services are “affected with the public interest,” and therefore government has a responsibility to ensure their fair, affordable ubiquitous availability.
I argue that broadband, in the tradition of all our previous communications services, now falls into this category of services so essential that they are public utilities. I do this knowing full well that those opposed to any form of government oversight of essential service or opposed to the public provision of critical infrastructure will deliberately misconstrue this to mean traditional rate-of-return regulation. To this I can only say *shrug*. The first step in ensuring proper broadband policies lies in reclaiming the term public utility for what it really means — a service so essential that the government has a responsibility to ensure that, one way or another, everyone has fair and affordable access. We must embrace that fundamental value as firmly as we should reject a return to rate regulated private monopoly provision — or the worse alternative of entirely unregulated private monopoly provision.